On 100th an­niver­sary of the end of World War I, Florida marks a spe­cial Vet­er­ans Day this year

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Local - BY CAITLIN OSTROFF

At the Alexan­der Nininger Jr. State Vet­er­ans Nurs­ing Home in west Pem­broke Pines, most ev­ery­thing has an or­der and pur­pose to it. The lobby that greets friends and fam­ily is largely un­adorned, save for a poster on a cof­fee ta­ble ad- ver­tis­ing the up­com­ing Vet­er­ans Day and a binder de­voted to the home’s name­sake, a 23-year-old Army sec­ond lieu­tenant who was the first Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent of World War II.

Past the lobby, a cal­en­dar dis­plays the sched­uled events res­i­dents can choose to take part in, ev­ery­thing from Tai-Chi to pet ther­apy and a book club. Do­nated mil­i­tary uni­forms from the lo­cal his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety line the wall as res­i­dents watch movies in black and white. Mem­o­ra­bilia sits in dis­play cases — leather-bound jour­nals, a pair of avi­a­tor gog­gles and a Con­gres­sional Gold Medal. The res­i­dents started of­fer­ing them as do­na­tions about two years ago.

“It grants you some im­mor­tal­ity,” said Larry Militello, a decade into his ten­ure as the nurs­ing home’s ad­min­is­tra­tor, look­ing down at the dozens of keep­sakes. “You may be gone to­mor­row, but this will still be here.”

The nurs­ing home on Pines Boule­vard and Univer­sity, one of six in the state ex­clu­sively for vet­er­ans, houses 120 peo­ple — about 116 men and four women. Cur­rently, about eight or nine peo­ple are on the wait list.

The nurs­ing home is mark­ing Vet­er­ans Day, this week­end, with sev­eral par­ties and events. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts will come by to en­ter­tain. This year’s Vet­er­ans Day car­ries spe­cial mean­ing, mark­ing 100 years since the ar­mistice that ended World War I. The holiday was orig­i­nally known as Ar­mistice Day.

Florida, the na­tion’s third most pop­u­lous state, is home to the third-high­est pop­u­la­tion of vet­er­ans, about 1.5 mil­lion. The num­bers have fallen slightly in re­cent years as the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion — those who fought World War II — have faded away. To­day, those who fought in Viet­nam make up about a third of Florida’s vet­er­ans. As

they age, their med­i­cal costs rise.

Ad­justed for in­fla­tion, spend­ing on Florida vet­er­ans’ med­i­cal care nearly dou­bled over the past decade, grow­ing from $2.9 bil­lion to $5.7 bil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

The needs are many, with drug abuse and de­pres­sion se­ri­ous is­sues. Florida’s vet­er­ans’ sui­cide rate, 34 per every

100,000 vet­er­ans, was slightly above the na­tional aver­age for vet­er­ans of 30 in 2016. But that’s twice the rate of the pop­u­la­tion over­all.

A 2014 re­port shows that the por­tion of spend­ing on men­tal health treat­ment at VA fa­cil­i­ties rose from about 9 per­cent of the pie in 2007 to just above 11 per­cent in 2013.

Half of Florida’s vet­er­ans are 65 years or older. Be­cause the pop­u­la­tion is gray­ing, the state started an ini­tia­tive four or five years ago to add more vet­er­ans nurs­ing homes, said Steve Murray, a spokesman for Florida’s Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs, which op­er­ates and fi­nances the homes. Each of the six ex­ist­ing homes can take 120 res­i­dents. The one vet­er­ans as­sisted liv­ing cen­ter in Lake City can care for 150 res­i­dents.

Two new nurs­ing homes are be­ing built, Murray said. The one in Or­lando — slated to open in late 2019 — will add 114 beds. The home in Port St. Lu­cie — sched­uled to open in early 2020 — will add 120 beds.

In or­der to en­ter a state vet­er­ans nurs­ing home, vet­er­ans need to be a Florida res­i­dent, have re­ceived an hon­or­able dis­charge and have a let­ter of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion from a VA doc­tor that he or she qual­i­fies. The amount a per­son must pay depends on his or her cir­cum­stances, Murray said.

Build­ing more vet­er­ans nurs­ing homes is costly, Murray said. Each re­quires about $50 mil­lion for con­struc­tion, plus 165 staffers to pro­vide med­i­cal care, laun­dry ser­vices, food prepa­ra­tion and ac­tiv­ity plan­ning. Be­cause of that, it makes sense eco­nom­i­cally to part­ner with ex­ist­ing, pri­vately run fa­cil­i­ties.

Florida has dou­bled down on its ef­fort to help ex­pand the num­ber of adult day care op­tions for vet­er­ans. The U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs pro­vides a per diem to fa­cil­i­ties that of­fer th­ese ser­vices.

Murray said many vet­er­ans pre­fer to stay in their own homes as they age, and adult day care gives loved ones car­ing for a vet­eran a re­prieve, en­abling them to go to work.

“No state will have enough vet­eran nurs­ing homes,” he said. “No state has the re­sources.”

At the Mi­ami VA, there’s been a steady ef­fort to add more lo­cal adult day care ser­vices to the VA’s net­work, said spokesman Shane Suzuki. The Mi­ami VA sees mostly Viet­nam, Korean War and World War II vet­er­ans,

AD­JUSTED FOR IN­FLA­TION, SPEND­ING ON FLORIDA VET­ER­ANS’ MED­I­CAL CARE NEARLY DOU­BLED OVER THE PAST DECADE, GROW­ING FROM $2.9 BIL­LION TO $5.7 BIL­LION, AC­CORD­ING TO THE U.S. DEPART­MENT OF VET­ER­ANS AF­FAIRS.

al­though that will change with the pas­sage of time. In the past year, of the 57,000 pa­tients served by the Mi­ami VA, about 6,000 were de­ployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Suzuki said Vet­er­ans Af­fairs is notic­ing a de­mo­graphic shift as more fe­male vet­er­ans come in for ser­vices. Be­cause of that, the Mi­ami VA is open­ing an ex­panded women’s health cen­ter in mid-2019 at the main hospi­tal near the Jack­son Me­mo­rial com­plex. That will cen­tral­ize women’s ser­vices in one area in- stead of hav­ing them spread through­out the hospi­tal.

The Mi­ami VA is also work­ing on ex­pand­ing its South Dade clinic from 7,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet. The VA is cur­rently look­ing for space for that ex­pan­sion as more vet­er­ans are mov­ing to the area.

Militello said the state doesn’t spare re­sources when taking care of its vet­er­ans. Hav­ing come from op­er­at­ing pri­vate­sec­tor nurs­ing homes, he said he’s never had a prob­lem get­ting fund­ing for items his res­i­dents need.

Though he him­self didn’t serve in the armed forces, he’s gained a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for what it means for some­one to have served his or her coun­try.

“We owe them a great debt,” Militello said. “We call them the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion — they were the gut­si­est gen­er­a­tion.”

Alexan­der Nininger Jr. was the first Medal of Honor re­cip­i­ent from World War II.

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