Legislature(2001 - 2002)
04/18/2002 03:40 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 asked Commissioner Duncan to take the witness stand. He called attention to the letters from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Anthony J. Principi. The packets had a memorandum that didn't go as far as he would have liked, but it does talk about agreeing to work to find solutions to issues that existing policies may create for veterans who qualify for assistance but do not fit within the state administration in eligibility standards. They would try to work within the parameter of state statutes with regard to eligibility for living in the homes and, if necessary, they would develop a waiver or federal legislation to modify the federal program so funds could flow to individual veterans living at a home and not directly to the home. He explained his proposed CS was drafted so that the name would not change at this point because they aren't sure the mechanism will work. The department wanted it put in regulation that 20 or 21 percent of the available beds would be allocated to veterans. On page 2, lines 17-20 it is made clear that the cap is 21 percent in all the homes together and no more than 30 percent of the beds in one home may be filled by veterans. Section 1 comes from the department's original bill. Sections 3-7 are to clean up the original statutes and codify changes in federal regulations and codes by bringing current statutes up to date. JIM DUNCAN, Commissioner of the Department of Administration, said that since the last hearing on this bill, they have been in contact with Secretary Principi to get a better definition of how the demonstration program might work. There is a memorandum of agreement between Marsha Goodwin, Secretary Principi's designated contact person, Jim Kohn, director of the Alaska Longevity Program and John Tabor from the Governor's Office. The memorandum specifies the parameters of the program, but their discussions are ongoing. It may require a waiver or a change in federal statute and regulation; the goal is to address the needs of the veterans while preserving the ownership and authority of the state to operate and manage the program. The following are his comments on the committee substitute (CS): · Putting the preference in statute is acceptable to the department. They never intended to exceed the collective total of 21 percent of the available beds for veterans and the 30 percent limit in any one home causes no difficulty either. · There is still interest in the name change, which was a part of the original bill. He understood the reason for deleting it in the CS, but there is interest in pursuing the change as the legislation moves forward. · The CS deleted the requirement that one of the two members of the newly created board would be the chairman of the Alaska Veterans Advisory Committee (AVAC). Because there are other options available for AVAC to be represented on the board that's also workable. Commissioner Duncan said there was no mention of a study to look at the unmet needs of veterans in the original bill because last year that was submitted as a separate item in the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs budget. They decided it was preferable to package it with SB 55 so he submitted an amendment that would authorize a survey of the housing and care needs of veterans in the state that are not met by the Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Home. The department would report their findings to the Governor and the Legislature no later than the first day of the second regular session of the Twenty-Third Alaska State Legislature. They projected the cost of the study to be $250,000.00. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT noted the cost of the study was approximately one half the cost of a similar study funded by the State of Washington. He asked whether the results of the study would be the basis for the state going forward to establish a stand alone veteran's home or dedicated veteran's wings that could be added to the homes. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN wasn't sure what the result would be, but it would provide an answer as to whether they needed to do something further to meet the needs of the veterans. The Governor did submit a certificate of participation request for $4 million in the deferred maintenance package, which would be the state match to any federal dollars. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT looked for the original fiscal note. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN referred him to the revised fiscal note on the original bill dated 1/15/02. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said in developing the pilot program there is a request to open the additional beds, but there are about 90 veterans who may qualify for the developing program who currently reside in the homes. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN agreed there are 95 veterans in the homes now. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said the program could be developed in the hope that the federal (VA) funds become available for the veterans who currently reside in the homes or the Finance Committee might also decide to authorize the additional general fund money to open up some of the additional beds. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said the current revenue picture would not change if the demonstration program came together and an agreement was made with the VA so that the 95 veterans who are presently in the Alaska Pioneer Homes could receive veteran's benefits. That is because the money would flow directly to the veterans and they would use it to help pay their cost of care. It would take a general fund appropriation to match the federal funds for more beds to be opened. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said, "This committee is not tasked with balancing the checkbook, but there is some benefit to the program even if we don't have additional money because some of those veterans who are currently in the homes are paying for their services out of pocket and they could be getting the VA benefit." COMMISSIONER DUNCAN agreed. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT called for teleconferenced testimony. MERILL HAKELA, a Korean War Veteran from Fairbanks, said he opposed the renaming of the Alaska Pioneer Homes and has testified against this several times previously. He suggested converting the Bassett Army Hospital into a stand-alone veteran's home. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT informed him that the proposed CS dropped the name change while they worked with the VA on a demonstration project. They don't want to change the name until they know that the program would work to everyone's satisfaction. At a minimum, they want to get VA benefits for those pioneers who are also veterans and are currently living in the Pioneer Home, but if they can't work things out with the VA then there would be no change to the way the homes are operated. MR. HAKELA reiterated his opposition to the federal government having any part in the Alaska Pioneer Homes. HARRY JENKINS from Fairbanks appreciated that the CS dropped the name change, but was still opposed to the bill. He agreed with Mr. Hakela that the Bassett Army Hospital could be used for a stand-alone veteran's home. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT explained the provisions of the proposed amendment to conduct a study on unmet veterans needs. He said he looked into converting the Bassett Army Hospital and learned the new wing is usable, but there are problems with the main structure. DON HOOVER asked if he understood correctly that there would be a $250,000 study. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT explained there would be a study if the proposed amendment was successful. The larger fiscal note reflects the cost if additional beds were opened. Roughly half the cost of opening the additional beds would come from the general fund. The Finance Committee must decide whether they will develop a program that benefits veterans that are currently residing in the homes or open up additional beds for veterans. There would be a cost to the state treasury if that action were taken. The total general fund cost to open up about 100 additional beds would be almost $3 million. SIDE B MAJOR GENERAL OATES, Adjutant General with the Department of Military & Veterans Affairs thanked Chairman Therriault and the committee for their support. He knew that everyone who testified had the best interests of veterans and pioneers in mind. He outlined the difficulties associated with renovating the Bassett Army Hospital. LADDIE SHAW, Special Assistant in the Office of Veteran Affairs Department of Military & Veterans Affairs, said he agreed with General Oates' words of wisdom. GARY BERRY, American Legion representative, testified in support of SB 55. He would also like to see an independent and unbiased study. CLAYTON LOVE, Disabled American Veterans representative, said he agreed with Mr. Berry. He emphasized the importance of conducting the study. "If it does turn out that we can have our stand-alone veterans home, it would probably eliminate a lot of feuding between the pioneers and the veterans, which we don't want." CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT noted the CS and the amendment. He informed members that it's not unusual to have an appropriation like this that would be attached to a substantive piece of legislation, but it would generally be funded as a separate line item in a capital budget or appropriation bill. If it goes on as part of a fiscal note, the end of the session approached and the fiscal notes must be paid for in the operating budget or one of the budget bills. Finance Committees are generally given a budget into which they must fit the fiscal notes. Attaching the amendment does not guarantee funding for the study. The Finance Committee could also decide that it would be more appropriate as a part of another appropriation package. He said he was willing to sponsor the amendment on behalf of the committee. They could either attach the amendment or recommend the Finance Committee consider it as a potential capital budget request item. SENATOR DAVIS asked what the department's preference was. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT thought the department would like it to be attached. He asked Commissioner Duncan for the department's reaction if the Finance Committee zeroed out the fiscal note. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said their preference is to attach the amendment and the fiscal note is necessary for the study to go forward. They decided to do it this way because they wanted it to be a program in its entirety. If the bill passed with the amendment language and there was no appropriation it would create difficulty for the department because they don't have the money to do the study. He suggested adding the language that the study was subject to the appropriation. He thought it was important to have specific language as to the intent of the $250,000.00 and that is why they wanted it in this bill. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said they would make a conceptual change and work with the drafters. He made a motion to adopt conceptual amendment #1 to the CS with "subject to appropriation" language. SENATOR STEVENS asked the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to speak to proposed amendment #1. MAJOR GENERAL OATES said he and Commissioner Duncan have discussed that and they would expect that the administration of the home would be through the Department of Administration because they already have an existing process to manage those homes. Whether it's part of an Alaskan Pioneer's Home or part of a stand-alone veteran's home they would still take that approach. They have also spoken about cooperating in the survey and he feels they would have a full role in accomplishing that survey. SENATOR STEVENS said if the Pioneer's Home is administrated by the Department of Administration now then it sounds as though the Legislature would be giving them money to study their own organization. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said the Pioneer Home system is currently administered by the Department of Administration and in statute they are charged with administering a veteran's home if there were to be one. The purpose of the study is to study the unmet needs of veterans to make sure they have proper care and access to facilities. This would help them determine whether they need to go to a stand-alone veteran's home or add a wing to an existing facility to meet the needs of veterans who, for example, aren't 65 years old. MAJOR GENERAL OATES added that the survey would be a full partnership with the Department of Administration and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Their veteran's service officers and the Veterans Administration would also participate. SENATOR STEVENS asked if they would put the survey out to bid so there would be some sort of independence to address Mr. Berry's concern or would they be doing the survey in-house. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN said it is their intent to work with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to put together the necessary criteria for what they want studied and then go out for an RFP (request for proposal). SENATOR STEVENS asked whether they would have members that would evaluate the RFP. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN envisioned a steering committee comprised of representatives from the Department of Administration, the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and perhaps other interested organizations to put together the RFP and the criteria. Clearly, they would get an independent company to conduct the study. MAJOR GENERAL OATES added, "To the extent possible we would also use the veterans organizations to assist in that data collection and be part of it, but that could be part of the package as we put it out to competitive bid." SENATOR STEVENS went on record to say he hoped they have veterans involved with the development of the RFP because they know their needs better than anyone. MAJOR GENERAL OATES said it was their full intention to do that. COMMISSIONER DUNCAN added they have done a number of RFPs, they always put together a steering team with a broad cross section of individuals, and they would surely involve veterans this time. CHAIRMAN THERRIAULT said there was a motion to adopt amendment #1 that had been changed conceptually. He noted it was likely that this would cause a change in title, but that was no problem since this was the house of origination for the bill. There being no objection, amendment #1 was adopted. He noted two fiscal notes. There were no additional amendments. He asked for the will of the committee. SENATOR DAVIS made a motion to move CSSB 55(STA) and attached fiscal notes from committee with individual recommendations. There being no objection, it was so ordered.