Legislature(2001 - 2002)
05/05/2001 01:10 PM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 55-PIONEERS' AND VETERANS' HOME/ADVISORY BD CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said it was not his intent to move SB 55 but he would like to hear more information. Some pioneers who oppose the bill in its current form but think there is the possibility of working things out have contacted him. Earlier, when he asked for information on the regulation package it was still in outline form but he thought it might help allay some of the fears. Also, at the House State Affairs Committee meeting the contents of the letter to Mr. Leo Kaye from Tony Principi were read into the record and he wondered whether Commissioner Duncan had reviewed the letter or been in touch with the Veterans Administration (VA) and was able to explain some of the terminology in the letter. Specifically, the line that says, "The VA State Home per diem grant program provides federal payments to states for eligible veterans" is unclear as to whether the funding flows to the individual veteran or to the state. Next, the line stating, "We look forward to working closely with the state to help Alaska meet all federal grant requirements" left unanswered what those grant requirements are. Finally the mention of taking over one of the pioneer homes or a wing of a home is quite possibly causing some concern among Pioneers. JIM DUNCAN, Commissioner of Administration, passed out copies of a letter he sent to the chairman of the Pioneers of Alaska legislative committee in March 2001 and a letter about regulations he sent to Chairman Therriault in February. The Pioneers do have specific concerns about the legislation and he now recommends three amendments to address those concerns. · First, they didn't want the state pioneer home system to fall under federal control and regulation. That has never been the intention and to make this clear he recommends that legislative committees add an intent section that clearly states that it is the intention of the legislature that this remain a state owned and operated system located within the Department of Administration and it is not to fall under federal rules, regulations and requirements. · The second recommendation is to delete the language that refers to cooperation with the federal government from the pioneer home statutes. · The third recommendation stems from the concern about putting veteran's preference in regulation and the fear that it might result in a veterans' home and not a pioneer/veteran home. The regulation outlined seems clear and says the 21 percent preference will be of the fully funded beds so if all 600 beds were funded it would be 21 percent of 600 and if there are just 500 funded beds it would be 21 percent of 500. Preference would never be given to more than 21 percent of the funded beds. Because of the concerns, he recommends putting the regulation in statute, which would resolve the concern because then it would require legislative action to change it. The bill drafters have been asked to look at the language again even though they believe the current language that provides for the 21 percent preference and spousal preference is language they would recommend putting into statute. The name change to pioneer/veteran home is important because to fulfill the commitment to veterans they need to be recognized in name. The name change is also necessary from the Veterans Administration's viewpoint. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT asked what is entailed in the language, "meet all federal grant requirements." COMMISSIONER DUNCAN responded that was in the letter to Mr. Kaye from Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Secretary Principi. He interprets that as present VA policy such as the requirements that homes must meet so that the residents of those homes qualify for the federal VA benefits. In the discussion with Mr. Principi they talked about developing a model pioneer/veterans home system and obtaining a federal waiver of the typical requirements so veterans in the combined home could receive VA benefits. Currently there are 90 veterans in the pioneer homes in Alaska and none of them receive per diem veteran's benefits. These benefits would flow directly to the veteran who would use the money to help pay for their cost of care. Secretary Principi was clearly interested in working on this model combined system because, if successful, it could be used throughout the country. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT asked whether, as a first step, the VA would make the change in their policy to allow veteran benefit payments to those 90 veterans currently in the pioneer homes. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said that would be a big step for the VA to make without the state taking some action to indicate a commitment to veterans. It has to be a hand-in-hand joint effort. Lacking the preference or name change it will be difficult for them to take a first step. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT asked if a name change would be sufficient to get the VA to change their policy so the veterans in the pioneer system could get the VA benefits. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN could not give a definitive answer. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT commented that for some seniors, the name change is the most egregious part. SENATOR PHILLIPS asked why there is such resistance from the World War II generation. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said there is no one specific reason. First, the pioneer home system has been in existence since 1913 and there is ownership that has built up and change is frequently difficult. Second, there has been some misinformation that this would mean that pioneers who have been on the list for years would be stepped over by veterans and they would not get into the home when desired. Also, there is concern that pioneer women would not be treated fairly. Last, there is concern that the homes would be under federal control and regulation. SENATOR PHILLIPS said veterans complained to him. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN agreed there are some veterans with reservations but there are a number of veterans' organizations that have expressed support. SENATOR PHILLIPS commented that the average age in the pioneer home is 85 and most of them probably served in some capacity in World War II so there must be a difference of opinion among that generation. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said he thought the average age of occupancy is 87 and the waiting list is 83. He too is mystified at the resistance. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT announced that because of the shifting schedules, a number of individuals were not able to wait to teleconference but they faxed their testimony. Most identified themselves as pioneers who opposed the change. He said he would like to continue to work through the interim with Commissioner Duncan, his department and the VA to work toward an acceptable piece of legislation. Getting a number of issues clarified with the VA would help with the discussion. SENATOR DAVIS thought there should definitely be some work done with the VA. She has received letters and messages from veterans who are not in favor of the change. They have indicated they want something dedicated to them alone - not as a joint facility. If they could be assured they would be adequately cared for, the opposition might go away. SENATOR PHILLIPS pointed out that Senator Davis' district abuts his and the complaints he received came from the area closest to her district so there are obviously concerns. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN was anxious to work on the various concerns to the legislation during the interim. They will continue to work with the VA as well. SENATOR DAVIS asked whether the two amendments Commissioner Duncan recommended were in printed form. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said they were not formalized. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN responded the first two are in a letter to Bob Hufman and the third recommendation is to incorporate the regulations into statute. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT added the current statutory language with regard to working with the federal government would be deleted. SENATOR PHILLIPS asked for more information for the committee and the public on the 65 percent funding reference. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN responded if a stand alone home is built, the federal government would provide 65 percent of the construction costs while the state would provide 35 percent. SENATOR PHILLIPS thought that needs to be talked about and fleshed out during the interim. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT called for teleconference testimony. ED BARBER is with the Pioneers of Alaska and lives in Anchorage. He encouraged the committee to include all parties when they work on this legislation in the interim. It's important to include the VA so they can make their position known to everyone. There are many questions that need to be answered. At least nine others wanted to testify but were not able to wait for the committee to meet. He stressed the importance of advertising any meetings and adhering to whatever time schedule is set. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT thanked Mr. Barber for his comments and assured him that his staff would be contacting the individuals to assure them their faxed testimony is in the bill packet and to apologize for the disrupted schedule. GENE DAU testified as a disabled veteran in support of SB 55. He asked Senator Stevens to give the bill a plug when he addressed the joint body and he did so. This is a win-win situation according to Senator Stevens and, as chairman of the appropriations committee, he is in a position to help. He urged action. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT announced SB 55 would be held in committee to be worked on in the interim.