State eyes seamless opening of Copas Home after construction

The Florida Department of Veteran Affairs aims to have work going on the Ardie R. Copas State Veterans’ Nursing Home by March. The ceremonial groundbreaking is scheduled for March 20.

“It is the ceremonial (groundbreaking), but I hope to have equipment on site before then,” said Glenn Stuphin, executive director of the state’s veterans department.

Stuphin said a builder is lined up and preparing for the job. Florida’s previous veterans nursing homes took 18 months to two years to complete. The first opened in 1993. “We’re looking forward to getting that home done in 18 months or less,” Stuphin said.

What’s more, Stuphin said the FDVA aims to have a seamless opening after construction wraps up. “The day we cut ribbon, we’ll be able to accept patients,” Stuphin said.

In short, Stuphin said, barring for unusual weather or other uncontrollable factors slowing work, the Copas home will be operating by the beginning of 2020. The state veterans department is eager to see it opened for several reasons. For one, the Department of Veteran Affairs estimates the state needs more than 4,000 state veterans nursing home beds. The state now has 720.

Local discussion about the proposed 121,000-square foot facility started in 2014. The state legislature started a site-selection process for the veterans nursing home in 2013. By fall of 2014, a site-selection committee had picked a 28-acre location on Tradition Parkway.

The state veterans department announced plans to have a ceremonial groundbreaking by fall of 2015 and to start construction in early 2016.

Then everything fell apart.

Progress was halted when the state and federal governments got into a spat over design standards. The VA is paying for 65 percent of the construction cost, so must approve designs. The state had invested time and money into a design, but then the federal veterans department changed its standards, which increased the expected construction costs by almost $20 million.

The Florida Legislature would have had to approve upping the state’s share of construction costs, but it only has annual 60-day sessions.

The snag hit when the legislature wasn’t in session. Besides, the state veterans department insisted, it had a proven design standard that works well in hurricane-prone, humid Florida.

The difference was settled in early 2017 and the VA gave Florida the nod to construct its designed $40 million facility. Stuphin said additional architectural work progressed quickly after that.

“We’re getting more success than stonewalls,” he commented.

The FDVA requested funding from the legislature for four positions at the home while it’s under construction. Those employees would be the directors of maintenance, nursing and human resources, along with the home’s director. If the legislature approves the funding for the positions, they could be filled after the state starts its next fiscal year in July.

The idea of getting them in place during construction is so they’re familiar with the home and have a chance to get into the community to develop a worker pipeline. “Nurses are the number one shortage in the state of Florida, job wise,” Stuphin said.

The state veterans department will request during the 2019 legislative session funding for the other 140 workers needed at Copas when it opens.

The department has already started discussions with area schools to develop programs for future workers. Stuphin said the FDVA aims to create a path for high-schoolers to get certification for nursing assistants’ jobs to work at Copas and use state employee education benefits to get nursing degrees.

“That’s our plan – to help the youth of the area,” Stuphin said.

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