Veterans’ Agency Hopes To Avoid Budget Cuts

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs Executive Director Glenn Sutphin told a House panel that the state would have to close a veterans’ nursing home if the Legislature were to make steep spending reductions to his department’s budget in the coming year.

Sutphin last week outlined his legislative budget requests for the 2018-2019 fiscal year but also provided lawmakers with ideas of how to trim 10 percent from the agency’s budget in case of a revenue shortfall.

Sutphin told members of the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee that he couldn’t reach a required $6.2 million reduction in the Operations and Maintenance Trust Fund, which receives federal funding, by paring back the amount of money for food or electricity at nursing homes.

“In all honesty, sir,” Sutphin said to committee Chairman Jason Brodeur, “the only way to meet this is we would have to close a nursing home. I’m not trying to make it bad, that’s just the only way.”

That would affect 120 residents and about 136 employees, he said. The state operates six veterans’ homes in Florida and two more are being built, one in Orange County and the other in Port St. Lucie.

It also operates a 150-bed domiciliary home.

Sutphin didn’t offer details on which home would be closed if the Legislature made cuts but assured Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who serves on the House panel, that construction on the new veterans’ nursing home in Port St. Lucie wouldn’t be affected.

“I don’t think I could go to that part of Florida if I don’t start building that home pretty soon,” he told Harrell, who quickly replied: “You’re right.”

Occupancy rates at Florida veterans’ homes exceed 98 percent, up from 93 percent in 2009-2010.

The Department of Veterans’ Affairs was required to compile more than $7 million in potential reductions. Other proposed spending cuts were reducing by 11 the number of veterans’ claim examiners. Sutphin said the cut would result in about 5,000 fewer veterans being served by the state.

Agencies annually compile proposed reduction lists as part of the budget process. The question is whether or not the Legislature will in fact target the areas that have been identified by the agencies in what is expected to be a tight budget year.

A financial outlook prepared by state economists in September said Florida’s surplus may be as small as $52 million, but those projections did not include the state’s costs responding to Hurricane Irma.

Brodeur, R-Sanford, started last week’s meeting by explaining the requirement for the potential reductions, often called schedule 8B reductions.

“I want to remind all of you the rationale behind the 8B reductions. The purpose is to identify recurring budget reductions that can be made in fiscal year 2018-19 if budget reductions are necessary,” he said.

Before outlining potential reductions, Sutphin made a plea to the House spending panel that lawmakers don’t make cuts to the department dedicated to veterans.

“Soldiers understand sacrifice. We understand those type things. I’m just asking you: Please be considerate,’’ he said.

Sutphin also presented to the committee a list of budget requests for the agency in the upcoming session.

He requested $2 million in trust-fund authority for maintenance and repairs for the existing six nursing homes and budget authority of $7.8 million to hire upward of 136 employees at the new Lake Baldwin nursing home in Orange County.

He also asked for nearly $200,000 for four staff members for the Port St. Lucie home, called the Ardie R. Copas, including a maintenance person to work with the contractor as the home is being built and a director of nursing to hire people to work in the nursing home.

He also is requesting $528,960 to hire infection preventionists at each nursing facility. That is a requirement from the federal government, he said.

“There are a lot of diseases coming back, that we haven’t had, seen in a while,” Sutphin said. “You have plague, you have Legionnaires’ disease.  A lot of things are starting to march back. … We have to prevent that because it will go through and wipe out our facilities very quickly.”

The News Service of Florida’s Christine Sexton contributed to this report.

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