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HELENA - Farrahl Johnson, a nurse's aide at the Montana Veterans' Home in Columbia Falls, doesn't think much of the proposal by legislative Republicans to save state money by privatizing operation of the nursing home where she's worked for 11 years.

"I've worked in private facilities, and I really think it's a bad idea," she says. "It's a great place (now). We didn't get the five-star rating for nothing. You privatize it, that rating is going to go down."

Yet across the state in Glendive, the other state-owned nursing home for military veterans is privately run - and the state's largest veterans group thinks the care at Glendive is first-rate.

Still, that doesn't necessarily mean privatizing operation of the Columbia Falls home is the right thing to do, says Gary White, department adjutant for the American Legion of Montana, which has 13,200 military veteran members.

"We understand how privatization could save (the state) money," he says. "We are not against privatization. (But) it seems like they're comparing apples to oranges in all the studies we've seen. ... We really can't see a way that (the two homes) can be compared."

Whether to privatize the 114-year-old state veterans' home in Columbia Falls has become a focal point in this session's debate over reducing the state budget.

The budget approved by the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee requires the state to seek bids from private contractors to run the Columbia Falls home, and cuts $3.37 million from the home's two-year budget, in anticipation of savings from privatization.

The Montana Veterans' Home has an annual budget of about $10 million - a cost significantly higher than many privately run nursing facilities, including the Eastern Montana Veterans' Home in Glendive.

The Glendive home, which has 80 beds compared to 105 at Columbia Falls, has an annual budget of just under $5 million.


Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena, who proposed the change, says he thinks quality care at the home can be provided less expensively by a private provider.

"We have to look at how we get the best value for the dollar," he says. "We're going to provide a certain level of care. How (a private contractor) provides it, is their business."

Lewis' proposal has met vocal resistance from Democrats, employees at the home and the union representing most of them, MEA-MFT.

They say one reason for the home's higher budget is the cost of state pension and health benefits for its workers. Handing off management to a private company means those workers would lose those benefits and perhaps be paid less, and that staffing would be reduced, they say.

Johnson, the nurse's aide, says the starting wage for a nurse's aide at Columbia Falls is a modest $10.50 an hour. Yet state benefits and negotiated longevity raises have helped create a stable, dedicated work force that provides top-level care, she says.

"There's great camaraderie among co-workers," she says. "And the guys (in the home) are great - taking care of our veterans is a wonderful perk."

They also note that the Columbia Falls home has grounds spread across 147 acres, a cemetery and older buildings to be maintained.

Non-management employees at Columbia Falls earn an average of $13.33 an hour, and its superintendent is paid about $74,000 a year.

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