The majority of veterans in Arkansas are not enrolled for any benefits through the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the quarterly meeting of the Arkansas Veterans’ Commission, which was held at the El Dorado-Union County Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, Gina Chandler, assistant director of veteran services, said of the roughly 225,000 veterans in the state, roughly 38 percent are receiving benefits.
But that leaves just shy of 62 percent of the state’s veterans who are not receiving benefits.
Chandler said the majority of those veterans not enrolled are those who served in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and in peacetime.
To help increase the amount of veterans accessing available services, the state VA has begun holding eligibility fairs in different areas to allow veterans to check on their eligibility and get enrolled on the spot. Chandler told commissioners of one such event in Searcy where a 100-year-old World War II veteran enrolled in his benefits for the first time.
“It’s reaching our veterans, getting them enrolled,” Chandler said. “Getting out there - we’re seeing the difference it makes.”
In August, the state VA held a town hall meeting in El Dorado to help educate area veterans of the services they may be eligible for. At the meeting Tuesday, Chandler said 44 veterans attended that town hall, with 20 of them being assisted that day and one veteran getting enrolled with the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System, which is the local arm of the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.
An aging population
Kathie Gately, assistant director of veteran homes, updated the commission on the department’s strategic goal to develop a plan to meet the long-term care needs of veterans in Arkansas.
Gately said there are 28 private long-term care facilities in the state that are certified through the federal VA that can each handle up to 20 veterans. Gately said her team has connected with 21 of those facilities, and most average about four to six veterans at a time. Part of the goal is to encourage the facilities to take more veterans, she said.
Col. Nate Todd, director of the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, said the department faces challenges in caring for aging veterans. There are only two state veterans homes - one in Fayetteville and one in North Little Rock. And the Fayetteville facility is in need of attention, Todd said.
The home will need improvements that require a financial investment, he said. Though he did not provide specific figures, Todd said they believe they have the funds needed to cover it now, but that it may need to be replaced in the long run.
Commissioner Rex Roark said they knew at the time they acquired the location of the Fayetteville facility that it was inadequate, but it was the only option. The Fayetteville veterans home opened in June 2006 and is a 108-bed skilled care nursing facility, according to the state VA website.
Roark, who was attending his last meeting as a commissioner Tuesday, said the facility is in a portion of an old hospital and that location is problematic.
“It’s better than nothing,” Roark said. “We need to do something with it now but I don’t know where to start.”
One of the issues is that the facility used grant funds from the federal government and if stops operating within 25 years, the money used will have to be repaid. At the meeting Tuesday, it was said that would cost about $8 million. Todd said that is why he wanted the commission to be aware of it now, so they can begin planning for that 25-year mark.
“We are thinking through this,” Todd said.
Todd also said the veteran population is decreasing in southern Arkansas, noting that most of the 28 private long-term care facilities in the state are in the southern region.
New clinic opening delayed
A new 10,000-square-foot facility at 1702 N. West Ave. that will serve area veterans will not open until late November.
The facility is set to replace the existing clinic at 514 E. 5th St. In August, officials said the new community based outpatient clinic would begin seeing patients starting Oct. 2.
On Oct. 16, Chris Durney, public affairs officer for the Central Arkansas Veterans Health System, told the News-Times that the clinic opening has been moved to Nov. 20. He did not specify a reason for the delay.