TOPEKA — Retired U.S. Army Col. Lynn Rolf worked the past decade to build momentum for construction of a $50 million skilled nursing facility for veterans in northeast Kansas where the majority of the state’s former service members live.
“Haven’t got a lot of traction,” said Rolf, a Leavenworth resident who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and served in combat during the Vietnam War. “It’s time to really pick up and cross the LD and keep marching forward.”
During the 2021 legislative session, two Kansas House committees have joined Rolf at the line of departure on behalf of a plan to build a third soldier home in Kansas. The first bill to be endorsed would require Kansas officials to submit by April 2022 an application for federal funding of a 65- or 70-bed facility in Douglas, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Shawnee or Wyandotte counties. A separate bill also approved by a House committee would authorize issuance of a maximum $17.5 million in construction bonds necessary to draw down a 65% contribution from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rolf, who served 31 years in the Army, said the first home for soldiers west of the Mississippi River was built in 1885 at Leavenworth. Kansas now operates nursing facilities for veterans near Dodge City in western Kansas and Winfield in southcentral Kansas. A new, modern nursing home would be welcomed in northeast Kansas to better serve an estimated 200,000 veterans living in the state, he said.
Nebraska has about 112,000 veterans, but four nursing homes to serve those men and women. Oklahoma has 261,000 veterans and Missouri 382,000 veterans, and both operate seven facilities.
“It’s time for a new home here in northeast Kansas,” Rolf said. “We have done far less than surrounding states in how they support vets. Let’s give our aging veterans throughout northeast Kansas a place to call home before they are ultimately called home.”
Gregg Burden, director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs, said support of the Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly was crucial to making progress on a top priority of the state’s veterans. If the application measure within House Bill 2020 and the bond financing language in House Bill 2021 became law, he said, it could still take three to five years to finish the project.
A platoon of state legislators in the House and Senate have been working on the legislative package, said Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Democrat from Leavenworth.
“It just makes sense to take advantage of the VA cost-share program and at least start the process to have a purpose-built modern facility,” he said.
Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican and retired U.S. Army colonel who deployed to Iraq and Jordan, said the idea of locating a nursing home in northeast Kansas wasn’t just about convenience. He said proximity of a veteran to family and friends was important for mental health reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic, which led to isolation of elderly people in nursing homes, affirmed advantages of close human contact, he said.
Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Bonner Springs, said the state had an estimated 88,000 veterans over the age of 65. A northeast Kansas facility will provide better direct care to these veterans and bring jobs to whatever location was chosen, he said. On the down side, he said, a facility for veterans could attract people with substance use problems and lead to an increase nearby in narcotics activity.
The state’s Democratic governor is supportive of adding geographic diversity to nursing home options for veterans, said Rep. Chris Croft, an Overland Park Republican and retired U.S. Army colonel. He also said Kelly was concerned about vacancies at existing homes at Fort Dodge and Winfield.
Advocates of the legislation in the House as well as identical bills in the Kansas Senate indicated vacancies at the two homes were in residential or assisted living quarters rather than long-term care beds that would be the focus of the northeast Kansas facility.
“I realize that many of the legislators are concerned that there are unfilled beds in Winfield and Fort Dodge,” said Herbert Schwartzkopf, adjutant of the Kansas Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It’s a proven fact that most families are very hesitant in putting their loved ones in a home that is much more than an hour’s drive for them to visit.”
Linwood resident Branden Jones, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Germany, said he thought of his grandfather, Korean War veteran Walter Jones, when considering merits of investing tax dollars in another nursing home for veterans in Kansas.
“My grandfather has reached the age of 88 and we are facing issues on his health care,” Branden Jones said. “He has lived his entire life in Leavenworth and Wyandotte counties and he should be able to live out his life here when he is no longer able to care for himself.”