The people of Wyoming have long held a deep pride and respect for our military veterans. We recognize the tremendous service and enormous sacrifice they have made to protect the freedoms we enjoy each and every day. It is a common occurrence for Wyoming residents to stop veterans at the grocery store to thank them for their service and invocations around the state regularly include prayers for the safety and well-being of our service members and their families.
The approximately 48,000 veterans who call Wyoming home deserve much more than our thanks. They deserve access to education opportunities, mental health services and quality healthcare, among the many benefits they were promised. They deserve to be able to return and retire in their home state without having to worry about having access to the services they have earned.
We are fortunate to be able to provide access to many services for our veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers in Cheyenne and Sheridan, the Veterans’ Home of Wyoming assisted living center in Buffalo, along with dedicated support from the Wyoming Veterans Commission and Veteran Services through the Wyoming Military Department and various Veterans Service Organizations, help meet the needs of thousands of Wyoming veterans every year.
In one aspect, however, Wyoming continues to still fall short of fully supporting our veterans with the care they deserve. Wyoming is the only state in the nation without a VA-supported Veterans State Home Skilled Nursing Facility.
State Veterans Homes were first established to provide care for homeless and disabled veterans. Operated by states with funds from the VA, the State Veterans Homes of today provide specialized care for veterans, many of whom have particular needs that are best addressed by those experienced in veteran care.
Right now, only Wyoming veterans with a service connected disability of 70 percent or higher are eligible to get their skilled nursing facility needs reimbursed by the VA and only through limited contracts with private care facilities or in a federal VA nursing home. The ‘service connected disability rate’ is a compensation scale determined by the VA based on illnesses or injuries received while serving in the military. However, the percentage of Wyoming veterans who fall within this limited category is less than ten percent.
What does this mean for Wyoming? It means the vast majority of Wyoming veterans are missing out on a benefit they have earned that is readily available to other veterans across the country. It means the state of Wyoming is leaving federal funds available to care for these residents on the table – to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.
In Wyoming, an estimated 300 veterans require care in a skilled nursing facility, yet Wyoming lacks any Veterans’ State Nursing Home to take care of them. By comparison, neighboring states like Utah and Colorado each have four Veterans’ State Homes.
Last year, the Wyoming Legislature authorized a study on the feasibility of building a skilled nursing facility in the state. This year, members of the 65th Legislature are considering a bill, House Bill 82, for a veterans’ skilled nursing facility, to make the facility a reality. The legislation would provide for the construction of three cottages with 12 beds in each unit, ultimately providing on-site care for 36 Wyoming veterans.
Additionally, the legislation will allow for the state to apply for a grant through the VA’s State Veterans Home Construction Grant Program in which, and if approved by the VA, the VA provides 65% of the funds needed for construction and the state provides the remaining 35%. Wyoming will own and operate the facility with the operating costs being offset by reimbursements from the VA for veteran care.
It’s taken several years for the state of Wyoming to get to this point. We’ve gone through numerous studies and public meetings regarding the needs, purpose and location of the facility. Every step of this process has positioned us better to build the right center for Wyoming veterans. We are encouraged by the thoughtful discussion and speed with which House Bill 82 moved through the House of Representatives, and hope this will continue in the Senate in the coming days.
Members of the Wyoming Legislature recognize just how important a facility like this is to veterans and their families. By constructing Wyoming’s first Veterans’ State Home, we can ensure our veterans can utilize a benefit they have earned while doing more to honor their dedication and sacrifice.