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Kentucky’s veterans centers sit half-empty while aging veterans wait for a vacant bed

Carl M. Brashear Radcliff Veterans Center (

Kentucky’s four state-run nursing homes for military veterans, with 681 beds between them, are sitting half-empty while some elderly veterans wait for months to hear if there is any room for them to be admitted.

By the time retired Sgt. Maj. Frank Brantley died Oct. 10 at the age of 81, the 30-year Army veteran had spent 12 months waiting to enter the Carl M. Brashear Veterans Center in Radcliff.

He never got the call. There are presently 25 veterans on the facility’s waiting list.

Brantley’s family said they kept asking the veterans center’s admissions office when a bed would be available for him. Nobody ever gave them a direct answer, they said.

“In May of this year, I asked, ‘You know, is there any way to tell where he is on this list? I mean, is he, like, number 10? Is he number 52?’ And that question was just pretty much dodged,” his daughter, Stacy Brantley of Vine Grove, testified Nov. 8 to the legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Veterans, Military Affairs and Public Protection.

“It was pretty frustrating to know that he went a whole year, and we never knew where he was on that list or when he was gonna get in,” Stacy Brantley said.

Brantley spent his final year shuttling between assisted living facilities and hospitals. The veteran’s grandson, Kyle Brundage, told lawmakers the quality of care, stability and companionship he could have found at a veterans center might have given him a better life’s end.

The Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs spends about $85 million a year to operate veterans centers in Perry, Jessamine, Hardin and Hopkins counties. They are facilities that are separate from the federal Veterans Health Administration system.

Their respective occupancy rates on Friday were 67 percent, 45 percent, 48 percent and 42 percent.

A fifth state veterans center, under construction for about $55 million in Bowling Green, is to start admitting veterans by early 2025. It will have 60 beds.

Unfortunately, while the state has hundreds of beds to provide long-term care to veterans, it does not have anywhere near enough employees to run them at full capacity, Department of Veterans Affairs officials told the legislative committee at the hearing.

In particular, the state has struggled to hire and retain nursing staff, just like hospitals and nursing homes in the private sector around the country, testified Mark Bowman, executive director of the Office of Kentucky Veterans Centers.

In an interview with the Herald-Leader on Friday, Bowman said the number of nursing staff employed by the four veterans centers fell from 369 in 2019 to a low of 176 last year. It’s a drop fueled in large part by stress from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state-employed nursing staff since has climbed back to 241, but that’s not enough, Bowman said. Two of the veterans centers, in Hardin and Hopkins counties, have waiting lists with dozens of names, he said, while the other two, in Perry and Jessamine counties, are able to process and approve eligible applications fairly quickly.

Apart from state-employed nurses, the veterans centers also bring in private nurses through staffing agencies and personal service contracts, he said.

“Our desire, our intent, is never to admit someone unless we have the staff to take care of them,” Bowman said.

Lawmakers on the veterans committee said they are disturbed to hear from constituents who cannot find a vacancy in the veterans centers.

At the request of the Department of Veterans Affairs, the General Assembly added $6.67 million to the current state budget to provide a 10-percent pay raise for veterans center employees, effective May 1, 2022.

A nurse aide position at the Hardin County veterans center is presently advertised as starting at $42,806 a year. A registered nurse position at the same facility is advertised as starting at $73,403.

The legislature also included $240,000 for a student loan repayment program as an incentive for nurses who stay with the veterans centers.

That state budget passed nearly two years ago. So, members of the veterans committee said Nov. 8, they were surprised this summer when they toured the veterans centers and saw entire wings vacant and closed off, even as families complained of there not being enough bed space to accept ailing and elderly veterans.

Lawmakers said they had not realized until their tour how serious the problem had become.

“The facilities are wonderful. But I have some grave concerns when it comes to communicating and the capacity and the occupancy rates,” state Sen. Matthew Deneen, R-Elizabethtown, told agency leaders at the legislative hearing.

“We have beds available,” Deneen said. “Yet we still have veterans on waiting lists. We have poor communication. We have folks that are not reaching back out to those on the list.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs not only fails to explain bed availability to families, Deneen said, it isn’t briefing lawmakers, either.

The next state budget will be written this winter, and lawmakers will want to help if they know what the agency needs to fix its problems, he said.

Instead of being forthcoming, he told Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Whitney Allen, veterans center employees complained to lawmakers that they are not allowed to speak freely.

“We’ve had staff members explain to us while visiting that when they’ve expressed issues and they sent letters, they reached out. It was at that point in time, sir, that you visited that center and told them not to do so,” Deneen told the commissioner.

“That’s disturbing,” Deneen said. “Good, bad or indifferent, we expect to hear the truth, the whole truth, all the time.”

Despite a high demand for nursing staff, state-run veterans centers in the neighboring states of Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio still manage to operate with occupancy rates around 85 percent to 90 percent, state Rep. Steve Bratcher, R-Elizabethtown, testified to the committee.

“That tells me it’s not a national issue, it’s a Kentucky issue,” Bratcher said.

In his own testimony to lawmakers, Bowman said he regretted any failure by the Department of Veterans Affairs to communicate with families seeking a bed for their loved ones, which he said is unacceptable.

However, Bowman added, 55 percent of skilled nursing facilities across the country have seen decreased patient admissions because of a labor shortage, and that’s what is plaguing Kentucky’s veterans centers.

Hopefully, he said, as the veterans centers continue to build back more nursing staff, they’ll be able to welcome more veterans.

That won’t happen overnight, Bowman said.

“Is it a perfect system? Does everyone get in? No,” Bowman said.

“I hate it,” he said.

“We’re not in the business of saying ‘No.’ But we are in the business of dealing with the reality we have to deal with. And we’re committed to doing that in the best fashion we can.”


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