The state is considering working with the Vermont Veterans' Home on finding alternative housing for elderly inmates or other aging populations with particularly complex needs.
Vermont's prison population is rapidly aging, according to the Department of Corrections.
The percentage of older inmates has nearly doubled over the past 11 years. As of July 1, 2014, 16.1 percent of Vermont inmates were age 50 or older, up from 8.8 percent a decade earlier. The DOC expects the trend will continue.
Late last month, two state officials — Monica Hutt, of the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living, and Frank Reed, of the Department of Mental Health — met with the management team at the Vermont Veterans' Home to discuss whether the home could be involved with finding alternative housing for inmates with severe illness.
The veterans home, in Bennington, has been a frequent target of budget discussions in the Statehouse. It is funded in part by its own revenues and money from the Department of Veterans Affairs — but also relies on several million dollars from the state.
Founded in 1884, the nursing facility is actually a part of state government, and its employees are unionized under the Vermont State Employees' Association.
The total proposed operating budget is $22.4 million in fiscal year 2017. The governor proposed funding the veterans home with $5.9 million out of the general fund — a $1.4 million increase over the previous fiscal year.
Now, members of the administration are reaching out to the home to see whether the facility could help the state better serve inmates who are older and dealing with severe and terminal illness.
Hutt emphasized that the concept is still in very early stages. There is not a plan, she said, nor is there a timeline.
The conversation is not limited to elders in prison, she said. Hutt and Reed also discussed whether the facility could help the state serve other older populations with complex needs, such as people with severe psychiatric disorders.
The number of beds the Vermont Veterans' Home could offer is likely very limited.
At least three quarters of the facility's residents need to be veterans, or the home could lose its status as a veterans facility and the funding from the VA that comes with it.
The remaining quarter of beds are currently used by spouses of veterans and parents who had a son or daughter die while serving in the military.
That would leave very few openings for people with complex needs from the state — likely two or three beds, Hutt said. But the commissioner is optimistic that the beds could constitute a useful pilot program that could help the state reach out to other nursing homes.
Many issues would still need to be addressed before a plan could be put in place, especially to put elderly inmates in the facility, Hutt said.
"We have some work to do with that offender population before we'd be ready," Hutt said.
Medicaid eligibility would be one significant issue, Hutt said. While someone is incarcerated, the state foots 100 percent of that person's health care bill. If the person is out of prison, there is the potential to draw down Medicaid dollars for health care — which comes partly from state and partly from federal coffers.
But, Hutt said, the Medicaid program has strict rules about how offenders can qualify for assistance. She's wary about rushing into an arrangement that could inadvertently harm the nursing home.
"We need to see this as emergent, but not such a crisis that we make mistakes and jeopardize our relationship with Medicaid," Hutt said.
Melissa Jackson, administrator of the veterans home, said Monday that she's open to working with the state to accommodate a few people.
"I think if we can make it work it'd be a great partnership," Jackson said.
There's been only one meeting about the concept, and details have been discussed only "at the 40,000 foot level," Jackson said, but she's planning to continue conversations with other parts of the Agency of Human Services.
As to taking in inmates, Jackson said the facility would have some interest in ensuring that anybody who comes in will not pose a risk to other residents.
"Our biggest concern is safety," Jackson said.
Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, who oversees the corrections part of the state budget for the House Appropriations Committee, said she's "delighted" to hear that state officials have been discussing opportunities to collaborate on housing the incarcerated elderly population.
"I thought that it was a terrific solution for issues that DAIL is facing, Corrections is facing, as well as the vets home," Hooper said.
Corrections Commissioner Lisa Menard said the department is looking at options for inmates from DOC as well as other complex cases. "We also need to look at and understand any Medicaid implications," she said.
Menard also noted the department is working with other parts of Human Services to address the needs of aging inmates.
"We appreciate the coordination with our agency partners to find viable placements for offenders that are appropriate," Menard said.