TOPEKA — U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran stands behind a quest by the Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly to build the state’s first nursing home for Kansas military veterans east of Topeka.
Kansas has soldier homes in near Dodge City and at Winfield, but none directly serving the cluster of military retirees living in northeast Kansas. And, Kansas trails surrounding states in terms of care facilities for vets with Missouri and Oklahoma hosting seven, Colorado at five and Nebraska with four.
Under a plan moving through the Kansas House and Senate, the state would commit to cover 35% of the construction cost for an estimated $31 million building and would be on the hook for annual operational funding. A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program would cover the remaining 65% of construction expenditures. Given the national waiting list for VA funding, it could take several years to bring the Kansas project to fruition. No specific site has been selected.
“Thousands of veterans call Kansas home, and as they move to long-term assisted living homes, they often have to make the difficult decision to move away from their family and community,” Moran said.
On Monday, the Republican U.S. senator said the financial commitment by the Kansas Legislature was appreciated and that he stood ready to assist with the project at the federal level. The state’s preauthorization of bonding is expected to move the Kansas project higher on the VA’s priority list.
A bill introduced in the Kansas House evolved during the 2021 legislative session. Originally, the idea was to earmark $17.5 million in state funding for construction of an estimated $52 million nursing home in either Douglas, Jefferson, Leavenworth, Shawnee or Wyandotte counties. The full House voted 121-2 to tweak House Bill 2021 by lowering the state’s construction obligation to $10.5 million in anticipation the state could make use of free land in Wyandotte or Leavenworth counties.
In the Senate, members unanimously passed a version allowing the nursing home to be built somewhere in northeast Kansas rather than limited to sites in the five counties. The Senate also decided the State Finance Council, which includes the governor and House and Senate leaders, should review and approve issuance of bonds by the Kansas Development Finance Authority for the nursing home.
The difference of perspective between the Senate and House will be subject of negotiations that pick up steam Tuesday when legislators begin returning from a spring break.
Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Democrat from Leavenworth, introduced a bill in 2020 designed to prompt construction of a nursing home for veterans in one of five counties. The governor subsequently issued an executive order broadening possible locations to all counties of northeast Kansas. Pittman also recommended the Senate incorporate Kelly’s executive order into their version of the bill to make the planning process smoother.
“We need this veterans’ home in northeast Kansas due to the heavy concentration of veterans in this area, the efficiencies we will gain from a modern purpose-built facility and to not fall behind our neighboring states when it comes to taking care of those who served our country,” Pittman said.
During House floor debate on the bill, Rep. Jim Gartner, D-Topeka, and others questioned the amendment lowering the state’s financial commitment by $7 million. The dissident representatives were willing to leave the higher dollar amount in the bill to make certain there was enough to finish construction, but the amendment lowering the financial obligation passed.
Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican and retired U.S. Army colonel, said an effort was made to identify cost savings and the potential of securing free ground was confirmed.
“The fiscal note that came in for this bill was just too much right now with other serious concerns facing Kansas,” Proctor said.
Rep. Henry Helgerson, a Wichita Democrat, said on-the-fly shrinkage from $17.5 million to $10.5 million hinted that development of the project’s boundaries had been incomplete.
“Is this assisted living? Is this for dementia?” said Helgerson, who voted against the bill. “We don’t know that because we haven’t put a plan together. All I want is a real plan. That’s not too much to ask for.”
Proctor said the VA process required the state’s funding commitment prior to authorization of a study to determine services in the greatest demand and the precise location of the building.
“We’re getting the same thing,” he said. “We’re just getting it for half price.”
In earlier presentations on the project at the Capitol, it was suggested that Kansas could build a 65- or 70-bed hospital.
Kansas has about 200,000 veterans living in the state, and Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Bonner Springs, estimated 88,000 were over the age of 65.
“This is important,” Johnson said. “This bill is a result of a bipartisan effort. This bill is like a stirring military march playing the theme songs for all of our services.”
The project could require three to five years to finish due in part to the time required for the VA to work through a priority list, said Gregg Burden, director of the Kansas Commission on Veterans Affairs.