ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The state's plan to turn Pioneers' Homes into combination pioneer and veterans homes is a creative idea that makes sense, Tony Principi, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said Monday.
''This is clearly outside the norm for us. But is it doable? Yes, it is doable,'' Principi said at the Anchorage Pioneers' Home.
Alaska is one of two states without a veterans' home.
Principi, the first Bush Cabinet secretary to visit Alaska, toured military and veterans facilities with U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska.
The state wants to give veterans an admissions preference at the six state-run, state-owned Pioneers' Homes so that veterans fill at least 125 of the 600 total beds. Under legislation proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, the homes would be renamed the Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Homes.
About 90 to 100 beds now go empty despite a waiting list to get into the homes because the homes do not have enough money to pay for staffers for 600 residents, said Jim Kohn, director of the state Division of Alaska Longevity Programs.
Knowles wants a $5.1 million boost to the Pioneers' Home budget to hire additional staffers. About half the money would come from fees.
Kohn said including veterans in Pioneers' Homes would be cheaper than building and operating a specialized veterans home and it would spread the service around the state. Alaska has Pioneers' homes in Sitka, Palmer, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan and Anchorage.
Despite the emphasis on veterans, the population mix at the Pioneers' Homes probably would change only slightly, said Jim Duncan, commissioner of the state Department of Administration.
As of Jan. 31, there were 91 veterans living in Pioneers' Homes and 56 on a waiting list. If the Legislature approves the extra money, roughly three dozen additional veterans would get to move in, as well as even more nonveterans, Duncan said.
The changes could be made without help from the federal government, but state officials want Principi's blessing and eventually some federal money.
Residents are supposed to cover much of their own care costs, which run up to $4,900 a month for someone with the highest health needs. The state would like the federal government to pitch in $50 a day for each veteran so fees are not so high.
Principi said he is willing to consider that, and he asked the state to submit such a proposal.
Veterans homes traditionally serve former military members who are disabled, poor and in need of health care. The Pioneers' Homes simply require residents to be 65 or older and have a year of Alaska residency. Care is subsidized for needy elderly people, and that would continue.
Alaska has about 65,000 veterans, including about 11,000 who are 65 or older.
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