Amy Arthur served with the military police in Iraq and, yes, she is a combat veteran. Some of her comrades did not come home.
The Oglesby veteran is entitled to many of the benefits available to all who served — low-interest home loans, free tuition, etc. — but there’s one service that is off-limits. When she’s elderly and in need of round-the-clock skilled care, she’ll have to find a private or public nursing home to meet her needs; the Illinois Veterans Home at La Salle is off-limits to her and other members of the Army National Guard.
“I fought in Iraq and see no reason why my comrades and I shouldn’t get the same rights as others who served,” Arthur said.
Springfield might change that, however. If a recently-introduced bill goes through then Arthur and other reservists and members of the National Guard will become eligible for nursing-home care at one of the state’s four homes.
Arthur and her comrades are not completely locked out of state-run facilities. Some residential services are available to reservists who have completed 20 years of service, explained Evan Fazio, public information officer for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, but the law contains no provision affording them nursing home care.
“Once they need nursing home care,” Fazio said, “they have to be discharged.”
State Sen. Jil Tracy didn’t think that was right. The Republican from Quincy, site of another Illinois Veterans Home, responded last week by filing Senate Bill 2293. The legislation would open nursing home care to veterans of the National Guard or Reserve Forces who have completed 20 years of service, have resided in Illinois at least a year and are otherwise eligible for retirement benefits.
“We have so many reservists coming from the Middle East conflicts who are going to need skilled-care nursing and may need it sooner than later,” Tracy said. “We want to make sure those services are available and I’m hopeful this legislation will be well-received.”
Why have reservists seemingly been left in the cold? At present, the demand for nursing home care is effectively limited to fully-enlisted personnel who served in major conflicts from the 1940s through 1970s. Of the roughly 180 residents in La Salle, about 42% served in the Korean War, 20% served in World War II and 20% in Vietnam. Just 10 veteran residents served in peace time.
Veterans of the extended War on Terror, by contrast, have not yet approached their life expectancy and therefore are not presently in need of nursing home care. While meeting those needs might not be an imminent concern, Tracy’s legislation prepares for the day when veterans of major conflicts have passed and when bed space becomes available at the facilities in La Salle, Manteno, Quincy and Anna.
Steve Kreitzer is all for expanding full eligibility to reservists and members of the National Guard. The superintendent of the La Salle County Veterans Assistance Commission pointed out that Tracy’s legislation makes fiscal sense as well as fulfilling a moral obligation to those who risked life and limb in service.
“The eligibility change laid out in Illinois Senate Bill 2293 should not create any financial hardship on the state or the veterans,” Kreitzer said. “These veterans retirements will likely cover the full amount of the premium charged for the care provided.
“If they were to go for care in the private sector their care could cost five to six times as much,” he said. “This would be an amazing additional benefit for those that have sacrificed so much already for us.”
Then there is the issue of jobs. The Illinois Veterans Home at La Salle currently employs 209 people and the legislation not only could ensure care for veterans but also continued employment for those who care for the needs of aged veterans.
Two local lawmakers said they want to see what the legislation contains after it’s been tweaked in committee — Tracy’s bill is just two weeks old — but said they support the concept in principle.
“The bill looks good to me,” said state Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris). “I didn’t realize there was an issue until Sen. Tracy brought it up. Whatever we can do for our veterans and provide equal access to our veterans home is a good thing in my view.”
State Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) also expressed support but wants to hear more about costs and whether the state can get a financial commitment from Washington to help care for reservists in their twilight years.
“I’m all for us taking care of our veterans in any way, shape or form,” Yednock said, “but we also have to have a partnership with the federal government to make sure they’re supporting our veterans, also.”
If U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger has any say in the matter, Uncle Sam will chip in, too. The Illinois Republican is a member of the Air National Guard and expressed full support for a measure that would provide him and his comrades with residential care in their twilight years.
“The Congressman supports expanding eligibility to all reservists for veterans homes admission, as it’s important our veterans are able to utilize their benefits from end of service through retirement,” said Kinzinger spokeswoman Maura Gillespie. “While this is not a federal bill, the Congressman supports Senate Bill 2293 and will be keeping an eye on its progression through the Illinois Statehouse.”