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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Big Isle veterans home survives and thrives

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By Colin M. Stewart
Hawaii Tribune-Herald

HILO, Hawai'i Little more than two years after opening its doors, Hilo's Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home finds itself nearly full.

Administrators acknowledge that the home's first year was a difficult one, but after working through the kinks, the facility has proven itself a valuable asset for the Big Island and the state.

After its November 2007 grand opening, the state- and federally funded veterans home wrestled with meeting standards. A mid-May 2008 inspection conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs found the facility "deficient" in 42 criteria.

The home is required to meet the standards annually to collect reimbursements from the VA. Shortly after the inspection, the facility's then-administrator and then-director of nursing were suspended with pay pending an investigation. Both quit within weeks.

The home has since completed its final inspection with flying colors, said its current administrator, John Johnson. Following the spring 2009 inspection, the facility was certified by the VA, and later recognized by VA Undersecretary of Health Michael Kussman.

Eighty-five people live at the home today, 10 people shy of the facility's limit. Johnson said that the past two years have seen a lot of growth.

"(Occupancy) goes way up, and then it goes down a little, and then it goes up further," he said. "We hit 93 a few months ago. To break 90, that was something we were proud of, but we had to step back to give the best care we can."

A tour arranged Tuesday evening for the Japanese Chamber of Commerce revealed a facility bustling with activity. Residents listened to music, gathered around TVs and played games aimed at helping them with coordination and concentration.

Theodore Decker, 81, said he was a big fan of playing with the home's Wii video game system. Golf is his favorite.

"It makes you concentrate," he said.

"I like to use the pool table to straighten my legs out," he added. "If I get the chance, I'm in here every day. I also like to work out downstairs in rehab."

The veterans home, at 1180 Waiānuenue Ave., is part of the Hawaii Health Systems Corp. Avalon Health Care is the private entity hired by the state to manage the facility.

Construction of the 64,000-square-foot home cost $20 million. The entire project, including demolition of the old Hilo hospital, cost about $33 million, according to officials.

The nursing home and adult health center adjacent to Hilo Medical Center is named after Yukio Okutsu, one of Hilo's heroes from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and a Medal of Honor recipient.

The veterans home employs more than 120 full-time and part-time workers.

Johnson said he and his staff members have worked hard to focus on quality care for residents, and said he did not want the number of residents to grow too much before the operation is ready. He said the home has not had to turn any applicants away.

"We haven't needed a waiting list," he said. "That's still about eight months away."

Residency is available to anyone who has been honorably discharged from the armed services and lived in Hawai'i for at least one year. Seventy-four of the facility's 85 residents are from the Big Island.

Space is also available for veterans' spouses. Currently, 18 percent of the residents are nonveterans.