Marking Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Gov. Tony Knowles announced he will ask the Legislature to establish a veterans' preference for admission to the state-run Pioneers' Homes, with a corresponding name change.
The governor also said today he's seeking $2.4 million in new operating funds to increase staffing at the assisted-living, nursing and boarding facilities for the elderly, which would be known as Pioneer and Veterans' Homes.
"With passage of this legislation, we will instantaneously have, in effect, six regional veterans' homes throughout the state," Knowles said in a statement prepared for an event at the Juneau Pioneers' Home this afternoon. "Veterans will have the choice to stay closer to family and community."
There are about 600 residents in Pioneers' Homes now. The administration didn't initially say how a veterans preference might affect the population mix, but the additional funding is intended to fill 100 beds that are now vacant due to understaffing, Knowles said in an interview this morning.
There is currently a waiting list of about 2,500 people who want to get into Pioneers' Homes, of which about 800 are veterans, said Bob King, Knowles' spokesman. Under the veterans' preference, a minimum of 125 beds would be set aside just for Alaska veterans over 65 years old, King said. No figure was given for veterans currently being served.
Knowles, a Vietnam veteran who served in Army intelligence, said Alaska is the only state without a residential facility specifically for veterans.
The veterans' preference represents the "combining of a great institution with a priority need," the governor said. Because there are six Pioneers' Homes in widespread locations, veterans can stay closer to their families and communities than if there were just one home dedicated to them, he said.
"Alaska has the second highest per capita number of veterans in the nation, and it is our responsibility to find the best means of providing the long-term care they have earned," said Maj. Gen. Phil Oates, the state commissioner of military and veterans affairs, in a statement released by the governor's office.
Oates, Administration Commissioner Jim Duncan and Health and Social Services Commissioner Karen Perdue have been studying the issue of veterans' care.
"This proposal is an innovative approach to meeting the long-term care needs of pioneers and veterans in Alaska," Duncan said.
The governor's office also cited support from Ella Craig, chairwoman of the Pioneers' Homes Advisory Board, and Dean Hill, adjutant for the Alaska chapter of the American Legion.
"Both groups have been extraordinarily cooperative," Knowles said.
He said the administration also will seek a federal grant for a pilot project, a move that would enable veterans in state facilities to obtain additional federal benefits. The governor also will ask the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to consider forming Veterans Administration clinics at the state homes.