Plan to Privatize Columbia Falls Veterans’ Home Advances

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republican plans to privatize the Montana State Veterans’ Home in Columbia Falls are moving forward, over the opposition of Democrats and the state’s biggest union.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, which represents the more than 140 public employees at the Veterans’ Home, said privatization would inevitably lead to a loss of jobs, and a decrease in wages and benefits for any employees remaining.

“This is outrageous,” Feaver said in a Feb. 17 statement following the vote by a Legislative panel to include the privatization in the state budget. “This mean-spirited plan cuts jobs and cuts wages for working people. Do we want a race to the bottom in wages for working people? I don’t think so.”

Feaver added that the high level of care veterans receive at the Columbia Falls home is a direct result of the fair wages and benefits paid to its employees.

The budget amendment that would privatize the Veterans’ Home was introduced by Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, based on a report that showed costs at the state-run facility in Columbia Falls far outpaced that of the Eastern Montana Veterans Home in Glendive, the operation of which is contracted to a private company.

The current year budget for the 105-bed Columbia Falls home is $9.9 million, and is projected to increase to $10.7 million by 2013. Federal revenue accounts for about $2.4 million of the veterans home budget, with $7.5 million coming from state special revenue funds, generated primarily by taxes on cigarettes.

The 80-bed Glendive facility, on the other hand, has a budget of $1.7 million this year, with a projected budget of $2.6 million in 2013. Because it’s private, Glendive has one full-time and one part-time employee.

“We are looking at the total numbers and saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute,’” Lewis said in an interview last week. “It just looks so far out of line that that’s why we have to look at it.”

He also pointed to statistics within the report that found workers’ compensation costs at the Montana Veterans’ Home are 455.9 percent higher than the average cost at six similarly sized private nursing homes. Health insurance costs at the Columbia Falls facility are 380.4 percent higher than those six facilities. And the overall direct costs of the Montana Veterans’ Home are 143.3 percent higher than the average costs associated with operating 12 other private facilities.

Lewis added that legislators have a responsibility to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible. But when questioned on the prospect of privatizing the Montana Veterans’ Home, Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, blasted Lewis’s proposal.

“Here’s what he’s proposing to do: it’s to take money out of the community of Columbia Falls,” Schweitzer said. “Let’s just be frank about this. What he’s saying is that we are no longer going to pay the same wages that we’re currently paying and we’re going to transfer – transfer – dollars from Columbia Falls back to one of his sweetheart deals someplace else. That’s what he’s doing. Make no mistake about it.”

The governor added that Columbia Falls residents, “ought to be outraged. I am.”

As of last week, Joren Underdahl, superintendent of the Montana Veterans’ Home, said it was caring for 101 veterans on its 20-acre campus along the banks of the Flathead River, which has been providing services since 1896. The Montana Veterans’ Home currently has a five-star rating, the highest possible, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

“It’s early in the process yet,” Underdahl said of the proposed privatization. “But staff and the residents both are concerned about changes that could happen here.”

Kelly Williams, the administrator of the senior and long term care division for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said even if the veterans’ home remains a public facility, it will be difficult to maintain current staffing levels under budget proposals that cut funding $974,000 in 2012 and $2.4 million in 2013.

She also questioned some of the conclusions drawn by the report the legislative subcommittee relied on to push for privatization, saying it was “pretty arbitrary” and failed to account for the inherent complexity of running a nursing facility necessary to truly convey what factors are driving costs.

“We think the reductions are too great without having the information necessary to make these kinds of decisions,” Williams said. “It was a pretty high-level analysis that didn’t drill down.”

“That’s the part that is so discouraging,” she added. “You have to look at all the component pieces and find out where the costs are.”

Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, believes responsibility may fall on the Montana Veterans’ Home employees themselves to offer an alternative to privatization.

“I would like to see the staff at the vets home here get together and consider forming a cooperative there to run the home,” O’Neil said. “I’d rather have a cooperative of the employees run the vets home than have some big out-of-state corporation come in and run it.”

“Even though I’ll probably vote to keep funding it the way it is, I doubt the rest of the Legislature will go along with it,” O’Neil added. “Something’s got to change there and I hope we can do it the best way possible.”

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