Missouri veterans homes face growing crisis

Kurt Erickson St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JEFFERSON CITY – With the death toll from the coronavirus continuing to tick up at Missouri's state-run nursing homes for veterans, officials Monday painted a grim financial picture of the agency that runs the facilities.

On Monday, as the number of COVID-19 deaths at the homes rose to 73, the Missouri Veterans Commission said it would ask lawmakers and the governor for an additional $16.4 million to operate the seven homes in the upcoming fiscal year.

While the result of that request won't be known until the governor unveils a spending blueprint in January, the agency also faces a potential funding cliff at the end of December when federal coronavirus stimulus funds are due to expire.

"We do have concerns about cash flow," MVC fiscal administrator Terressa Sherlock told commissioners.

The agency has received $13 million in federal aid, but revenues are down because the commission has stopped admitting new veterans at homes that have positive cases of the virus.

That means of the 1,238 beds in the system, only 872 are currently being used, resulting in a decrease in reimbursements.

In addition, a $250 monthly crisis stipend being paid to employees who don't call in sick expires in December, raising questions about whether staffing problems will resume if the virus remains uncontrolled heading into 2021.

Joan Elwing, director of the MVC Homes program, said staff burnout has become a significant issue during the pandemic, as nurses and other aides deal with illness and death from the virus.

"It's a very tearful situation on most days," Elwing said.

The deaths at the homes have become a focal point of concern after the facilities operated relatively unscathed by the virus through September. After more than 40 residents died in a short period of time, Gov. Mike Parson ordered an independent review of the situation. The review by the Armstrong Teasdale law firm has not been concluded.

The current hot spot for deaths and cases is the Cameron nursing home in northwest Missouri.

"We're fighting an uphill battle in Cameron," said MVC Executive Director Paul Kirchhoff.

The home in southeast Missouri's Cape Girardeau has had the largest number of deaths since Sept. 1, with 29.

In response, the department has boosted staff recruiting, increased cleaning and boosted training in the use of personal protective equipment.

Officials also are studying the heating and air conditioning systems to try to pump more outside air into the facilities, but that could prove difficult with colder winter weather arriving.

"This is just a really, really hard problem to tackle," Kirchhoff said.