VA Opposes Safety Codes Proposed for Vet Shelters

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Tuesday came out against a bill requiring community shelters housing veterans to be certified in accordance with state fire and safety standards.

The bipartisan bill was one of two pieces of legislation dealing with veterans housing brought before the healthcare panel of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Another bill, which the VA supports, would give more veterans the opportunity to live in “medical foster care” -- that is, a private residence rather than a nursing home.

Both bills must be passed by the full committee before they can be sent to the floor for a vote.

Robert Jesse, the VA’s principal deputy under secretary for health, said the department doesn’t support the safety codes bill because it would interfere with its own inspection process and actually harm shelters.

“VA is concerned that merely requiring a certification of compliance with the [Life Safety Code] would remove an essential component of VA’s GPD facility inspection process, making homeless veteran transitional housing less safe and secure,” he said.

Inspection teams from local VA medical centers ensure that shelters receiving department funds are safe and secure, Jesse said. They conduct an initial inspection before an organization can be included in the Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem Program, and annual inspections thereafter, he said. The teams review an organization’s operation -- from security and food safety to the facility itself, ensuring its compliance with the Life Safety Code of the National Fire Protection Association, he said.

Under the department’s program, a shelter receives as much as $42 per day per veteran, according to its website. The effort is aimed at helping homeless veterans or those at risk of homelessness.

In addition to the per diem, organizations can also apply for grants to provide case management, education, crisis intervention and counseling, as well as services for specialized populations, including female vets.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., the primary sponsor of the bill requiring that shelters meet all safety and fire codes, said the VA’s inspection system is broken.

“I have visited some of the shelters in my home district in West Virginia and I was struck by how many seemed to not be in compliance with state, local or federal safety codes,” he said.

McKinley said he has seen shelters with doors, emergency fire exits and sprinkler systems that were inadequate or broken.

Veterans’ groups including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legions and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America back McKinley’s bill.

The Disabled American Veterans said it was concerned the proposal would hurt shelter providers, leaving veterans and their families without needed services. In submitted testimony, it said it wants the House subcommittee to work with the VA and the shelter providers to come up with a solution that satisfies all parties.

The VA and most veterans’ organizations agreed that the other bill, the Long-term Care Veterans Choice Act, would boost the number of veterans eligible for being placed in residential houses rather than nursing homes.

Today, the VA may cover the cost of a veteran who requires nursing home care. If he or she prefers the Medical Foster Care program, the department pays related medical expenses but not the cost of living in the house.

As a result, vets who want to take advantage of the program must cover the difference, which can run from $1,500 to $4,000 per month. The VA argues it could cover those charges and still see savings. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the department pays $470 a day to have a veteran in a nursing home, as compared to $52 per day in a Medical Foster Care residence.

According to the VA, there are currently more than 500 veterans living in 400 approved caregiver homes across the country.

“This is a common-sense, veteran-centric bill that will free many veterans from financial turmoil, and allow them to make their own decisions about what kind of long-term care they want to receive,” Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told the panel.

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