Proposed budget provides boost for Missouri Veterans Commission

Low wages have possibly affected Missouri Veterans Homes more than most other agencies.

That is in part because it is difficult to retain help when employees might go somewhere else and make more money, even though they don't work as hard as they do at the homes, Missouri Veterans Commission Director Paul Kirchhoff said.

The commission is responsible for operating seven homes across the state and five veterans cemeteries.

"We are currently competing against everyone else for staffing," Kirchhoff said. "Whether it is in the nursing field or private industry, you can find jobs for $20 -- that are, frankly, easier to do than what we ask staff to do."

It's a fight for good, quality staff, he continued.

Gov. Mike Parson included revenue in his proposed budget that will help, at least for the next year, Kirchhoff said.

The governor's budget includes $23 million for the commission, a boost that was unexpected. The commission is not funded through the state general revenue budget. Much of its money comes from Veteran Affairs funding. The VA pays for services the commission provides in its homes. The commission also receives money from casino gaming and from medical marijuana. It has received about $8.9 million over the first two years of operation of the medical marijuana program. And it receives money from veterans who live in the homes -- fees for room and board.

The rates are very low compared to the private sector, Kirchhoff added.

He said $10 million from the governor's bump would come from the state budget stabilization fund. The other $13 million from medical marijuana transfers.

They are one-time funds.

"We'll continue to work with the governor and the Legislature to remedy (the funding issue)," Kirchhoff said. "We believe we need a long-term source. This will get us through the next year."

It is well-documented that because of staffing shortages, veterans homes are running at about 50 percent of capacity, missing out on VA revenue and on fees that residents would otherwise be paying.

Despite the shortage of staff (and maybe in a small way because of it), Kirchhoff said the commission is proud that six of the seven homes received recognition last year as "Best in Class."

"That's a reflection of staff," he said.

Using the added $23 million, the commission is certain it can adjust salaries. Staff salaries still won't reach market rates, he said, but will close the gap.

"What it will do -- what we believe it will do -- is help us retain the staff we have," Kirchhoff said. "It is a huge morale boost to our staff. They are hard-working, dedicated employees. They wouldn't be here doing this job if they didn't love working for our veterans."

The homes can't operate efficiently if they doesn't have all positions filled. That's especially true for two positions, he said.

"Nurses and certified nursing assistants carry the load for long-term care facilities," he said. "They are a precious resource for us."

Stabilization of staffing will allow the homes to bring more veterans in, he said.

"We've come a long way over the last two years," Kirchhoff said. "We've cautiously reopened our facilities to greater visitation. I'm really proud of them and what they've done."