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Tom Smart, Deseret News
Project Coordinator Dennis McFall with architectural renderings of one of the two new veterans nursing homes scheduled for groundbreakings in the near future, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Sandy, Utah.

PAYSON — Funding requests for two new veterans nursing homes were buried in the Department of Veterans Affairs' priority list until the VA learned the state already had its part of required funding in place.

Now the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs is planning to break ground Thursday for a new veterans home in Ivins in Washington County, followed by a groundbreaking for a second home in Payson on Dec. 14. That will bring the number of veterans nursing homes in the state to four.

The nursing homes are a valuable asset to aging veterans, with the VA paying half to all of the veterans' living costs if they are accepted into one of the specialty care homes.

Dennis McFall, deputy director for the state veterans office, said he wrote a grant request for the veterans home that would be built in Ogden before he retired in 1999. He said he was asked to come out of retirement in 2002, and by then 200 eligible veterans were on a waiting list just for the nursing home on the VA hospital campus in Salt Lake City. "That was too long. We needed to do something."

McFall said the state paid the entire $19.7 million construction costs for the Ogden home, not sure whether a two-thirds federal reimbursement would come through. When it did, he and others persuaded the Legislature to set that money aside for two additional homes that would serve Utah County, where there are 26,000 veterans, and Washington County, where there are 22,000 veterans.

Utah was behind 46 other projects when the requests for the two additional homes were submitted, said Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs. "Then last year we were notified by the federal VA that the funding for the Washington County home had been approved. In early March we received word the Utah County home had been approved."

Even though other states were higher on the priority list, they fell by the wayside when the VA came calling because they didn't have their state money in place, Schow said.

The new Utah nursing homes are expected to cost $18 million each and offer 108 beds per facility. With funding in place, the state next sent out requests for land donations in areas that matched surrounding veteran populations. Schow said The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated 10 acres in Payson, at 1865 N. Main; and the city of Ivins donated 10 acres for the home there, at 200 North and 200 East.

The projects will also incorporate changes in the way the VA is structuring its facilities for veterans needing skilled nursing care. The Utah State Nursing Home on the VA medical center campus at 700 S. Foothill in Salt Lake City has private and semi-private rooms that share bathrooms. The newer George E Wahlen Ogden Veterans Home, completed in 2009, has private rooms only with shared bathrooms. The two newest facilities will feature private rooms that each have their own bathroom.

And to lessen the institutional feel, rooms will be grouped in nine 12-bed pods in the new nursing homes — smaller groups than the 30-bed pods in Ogden or 20-bed pods in Salt Lake City.

A consortium comprised of Layton Construction, BWA Architects and Naylor Wentworth Lund Architects is designing and building both of the new nursing homes. McFall said each will employ a full-time staff of between 140 and 150 people earning $4 million in salaries with $4.5 million spent each year on goods and services in their local economies.

Veterans or their family members wanting more information about the veterans homes can get information by calling the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-800-894-9497, or by sending email to tcknight@utah.gov.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com, Twitter: SteveFidel