Georgia veterans commissioner Patricia Ross (left) and state Sen. Tonya Anderson (right) – both U.S. Air Force veterans – after the study committee meeting on Thursday. (photo credit: Rebecca Grapevine)

ATLANTA – A state Senate study committee focusing on veterans nursing homes in Georgia met Thursday to hear about problems Georgia veterans face and what the state can do to help.  

Though most veterans health-care services are spearheaded by the federal government’s Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), states also have an important role to play in helping veterans apply for and manage their benefits.  

In Georgia, the Department of Veterans Service (DVS) maintains two skilled nursing facilities in Milledgeville and Augusta. Currently, the two homes can provide skilled nursing services to around 400 Georgia veterans, said Russell Feagin, director of health and memorials at DVS. 

But around 2,000 veterans in Georgia need such placements, according to a VA estimate cited during the meeting.  

A variety of factors have stymied the state’s ability to serve more veterans in such homes.  

Funding is one. The veterans homes are financed by federal dollars that Georgia must match, Feagin said. 

State budget cuts over the past decade decreased funding while costs have risen, Feagin said, meaning the two homes can afford to serve fewer veterans.  

And like other health-care facilities nationwide, the veterans homes face challenges hiring and keeping enough staff, especially because they cannot match private-sector wages, he said.  

“An increase in dollars will help solve the problem in Milledgeville and actually Augusta,” said DVS Commissioner Patricia Ross. “But we still will not come close to that 2,000 number that the VA says we should have within the state.”  

Ross, who took over as commissioner of the agency last year, said Alabama will soon open its fifth veterans home despite having about half the number of veterans as Georgia. South Carolina also has five such homes and a smaller population of veterans.  

Georgia will face increased demand over the next two decades as the post-9/11 cohort of veterans ages, Ross added.  

A research center at Kennesaw State University is conducting a study about which locations in Georgia would be best suited to build new veterans homes, she said. Those results are expected later this fall.  

Beyond the numbers, new facilities could provide the state with the opportunity to embrace more recent health-care trends, such as smaller communities built around cottages or pods, Ross said.  

“We need to be moving on a path to making the situation better,” said the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, noting veterans issues tend to draw broad bipartisan support. Her resolution during this year’s legislative session created the committee.  

Kirkpatrick said the committee will meet again in December to discuss the findings from the Kennesaw State study.  

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.