Department of Georgia Commander Bill Lienhop, left, listens to Charles Esposito, executive director of the War Veterans Home in Augusta, give a presentation. Starting Feb. 1, Georgia veterans will have to pay about $700 a month to stay in the state-run nursing homes for veterans. (Photo by Brett Flashnick)

Georgia veterans to lose unique benefit

Effective Feb. 1, Georgia veterans will no longer be able to live cost-free in the state’s two nursing homes for veterans. Georgia is the last state to allow veterans to stay in such nursing homes for free.

A new law now requires the Georgia Department of Veterans Service to begin charging those who stay at the facilities in Augusta and Milledgeville. Georgia currently covers the cost of operating the homes by state appropriations and federal monies.

When the law takes effect, patients at the War Veterans Home in Augusta will pay $22.81 per day, which is about $700 a month.

"That’s a lot of money," said Charles Esposito, executive director of the War Veterans Home in Augusta. "But in the scheme of things of nursing home care, it’s not. In typical nursing home care, it would run $5,000 to $8,000 (a month) depending on where you are."

He said the average length of stay for Augusta patients is about a year.

The reason for the change is simple: the state is looking to streamline costs during the tough economic times. But the impact on veterans and their families can cause complications, and that concerns members of The American Legion family in Georgia.

Still, of all the options discussed, this was the best alternative, according to Legion members and the nursing home administrators. One option considered would have involved moving the system into Medicare or Medicaid. However, that likely would have forced the nursing homes to care for non-veterans and veterans alike.

Susie Mash, American Legion Auxiliary Department of Georgia president, worries about the impact on the spouse. Mash wants to make sure that a spouse will still be able to pay for housing, food and any medications while incurring the additional cost of nursing home care.

"I know that if this becomes a problem, then we will need to look outside (for solutions)," she said, "because our mission is to assist The American Legion, our veterans and their families at home and abroad."

For veterans and their spouses who are truly struggling financially, there is some hope, Esposito said.

"If the patient does not have the $700, and they can document and demonstrate that they don’t have the money, we can issue them a waiver and they won’t have to pay it," he said.

Veterans could also tap into the VA’s Aid and Attendance benefit, designed by federal law to assist with payments for medical care. The amount is based on a veteran’s income and assets. If, for example, a veteran exceeds the financial threshold, he may not receive assistance.

Esposito is thankful for the relationship between the Legion and his facility.

"Nobody does more for the Georgia War Veterans Nursing Home than The American Legion," he said, citing donations in the tens of thousands of dollars that have purchased patient recliners and lift-chairs, barbecue grills and a gazebo. "That’s the bottom line. The Legion does more for us than anyone, and we appreciate it."