Several veterans organizations are denouncing a plan to tighten the rules for who can get into the state's veterans homes.

Former prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and veterans with a service-connected disability rating of 70 percent or higher would move to the front of the line under a new proposal. Spouses of veterans, who now have equal access to the state's five veterans homes on a first-come first-served basis, would be knocked down in the pecking order.

Several other states have similar restrictions, but groups like the American Legion and the state's county veterans service officers are objecting strenuously. They say the new rules violate an unspoken but solemn compact with spouses, who may be more in need than some veterans who would get priority over them.

"The veterans I talk to are just as concerned about a fellow veteran's widow as they are about a fellow veteran. We're all family," said Army veteran Tommy Johnson, a blogger, veterans advocate and a Veterans of Foreign Wars member from Hopkins. "Sure, other states may do that. Other states may do a lot less for the veterans than Minnesota does."

Vets groups are pledging an all-out offensive to block the change. But this time the usually potent veterans' lobby at the State Capitol is facing a resolute opponent.

"My feeling is the veterans who have suffered the most as a result of their military service should have a priority in going into the homes," said Rep. Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, the author of the proposal, which is part of a bill in the Legislature.

Newton, a retired sergeant major with a 23-year career in the military, says he's faced this kind of uphill battle before against forces opposed to changes in the status quo.

Although much of the talk is about honoring service and sacrifice, the debate quickly breaks down to money.

Funding for long-term nursing like that provided in the state's veteran homes is the most expensive form of care for a rapidly increasing elderly population. The $161.5 million it cost to operate Minnesota's five state-operated veterans homes made up 77 percent of the state Department of Veterans Affairs' budget last year.

The change in eligibility was one of several recommendations made by a legislative committee on veterans housing in a report late last year designed to address veteran homelessness and the costs of the state's veterans homes. The committee found the rising cost of nursing home care to be unsustainable, and the recommendation to limit spouse's eligibility was among the recommendations to cut costs.

Different rules, different states

Currently, 17 states allow only veterans to reside in their state veterans homes. Five states have a priority for veterans but allow spouses or other eligible nonveterans to be admitted when space is available. Minnesota has allowed spouses to reside in the vets' homes on an equal basis as veterans since 1971, as long as they meet eligibility and admission requirements. Admission is based on the date of the application.

The new proposal has had one contentious hearing in a House committee. It would give first priority for admission to Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of war, Purple Heart recipients and veterans with the 70 percent or more service-disability. All other veterans would be next; followed by spouses of veterans who are over 65; then Gold Star parents. Priority would be given to veterans who were Minnesota residents for two years before admission or veterans who lived in the state at the time they entered the service.

While saying it is right to provide care to those who have sacrificed the most, Newton acknowledges that the changes make economic sense as well.

Veterans with a 70 percent service-connected disability or higher (they are known as 70 percenters) allow states to be reimbursed at a full per-diem rate from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. In Minnesota, that can amount to between $132,000 to $155,000 a year per vet, depending on which of the five homes the vet resides in.

But spouses residing in the vets' homes bring in no federal money. Although there are only about 60 spouses in the vets' homes, the cost of their care is about $5.6 million a year.

"I am not suggesting that we throw the elderly out on the street. This is done through attrition and we deal with it from this point on," Newton said. "The state is going to benefit."

No room for spouses?

The vets homes are attractive to people seeking long-term nursing care. There is an active waiting list of more than 1,000 people for the 790 beds available in the five homes, and another inactive waiting list of about 1,000. About 750 people are on the waiting list for the Minneapolis home and about 60 of those are spouses.

One group argues that veterans and spouses who don't qualify for the extensive federal benefits are exactly those who should be allowed to apply on equal footing to the nursing homes.

What are the priorities?

"I know of no human service program where people with the most resources get put at the front of the line for limited resources," said Milt Schoen, Hennepin County's veterans services director and legislative director for the Minnesota Association of County Veterans Service Officers.

Mike Ash, state commander of the Minnesota American Legion, said the proposal would likely mean there won't be enough spaces for spouses after the slots are filled with those having priority.

"The spouses put as much effort forth as we have," Ash said. "It's true we have to get shot at; they've got to stay home all by themselves with a whole set of problems they never counted on. We put a high premium on spouses."

Ash said the American Legion and other veteran groups are gearing up for an aggressive e-mail campaign and for directly lobbying individual state legislators.

"When you decide to go against us, hopefully you recognize that if it's a year you are getting voted up or down, you might want to think about it," Ash said. "When legislation like this comes up we need to let them know directly that we are 100 percent against it and we won't take anything but shooting the bill down totally."