Retirement home for veterans is proposed for Fort Howard

State would build facility on North Point site of federal medical center

February 10, 1999|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

To assist a growing population of older military veterans, the state Board of Public Works could take the first step today toward building a multimillion-dollar veterans home on the sprawling grounds of Fort Howard Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore County.

A Silver Spring consulting firm has submitted a bid of $57,909 for a 90-day feasibility study to explore constructing a second facility in Maryland to treat and care for ex-military personnel in a retirement setting.

If approved, the retirement home would sit on a stunning site overlooking a river and the Chesapeake Bay -- a tree-shaded tract named in honor of a dashing hero of the Revolutionary War that includes a facility nearly shuttered because of shifting medical needs.

About 530,100 veterans live in Maryland, with the largest segment of that population in the 65- to-75-year-old age group. A second, more centrally located home for veterans and their families is badly needed to supplement Charlotte Hall in St. Mary's Coun- ty, the head of the Maryland Veterans Commission said yesterday.

"Charlotte Hall is a first-rate facility but can be inconvenient for family members who must drive there from the Baltimore area," said Chris Hobbs, administrator of the commission in Baltimore.

The nearly two-hour drive to the Southern Maryland home from the Baltimore area poses particular trouble for older family members. The majority of Charlotte Hall residents are from the city and surrounding counties.

"We have come to realize the veteran population is not as independent as we first realized," said Susan McMillan, an assistant administrator at Charlotte Hall, which is seeking to expand. "There are veterans in their 80s and 90s, and they have living spouses and other family members who have their troubles visiting."

If a Fort Howard home were to become a reality, the estimated start-up cost would be $60,000 per bed, said McMillan. Estimates fall between 200 and 500 on the number of veterans the Fort Howard state facility could serve.

The existing Fort Howard federal medical facility -- named for Col. John Eager Howard, the Baltimore philanthropist and Revolutionary War hero -- sits on the 95-acre tip of the scenic North Point peninsula overlooking the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

Last fiscal year, 53,163 patients received treatment at Fort How- ard. It remains one of the few medical facilities in the nation that offer a free, five-day hospitality house for out-of-town family members visiting patients there, said Monica A. Smith, spokeswoman for the VA's Maryland Health Care System.

In the past 20 years, the facility has survived several attempts to close it, most recently in 1992, when the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in downtown Baltimore was opened.

The first building -- a wooden structure used today as an engineering shop -- was constructed in 1898, said Smith. Another structure, built in 1901, is used as staff residences, she said. Because some of the buildings date to the last century, most of the wood frame and red brick buildings at Fort Howard are designated national historic landmarks and cannot be rehabilitated on the exterior. Today, most of them still have no central air conditioning.

State Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr. said he is glad to finally hear of a possible plan for Fort Howard.

"I certainly support the idea to build a state facility there," Stone said yesterday. "I was never sure of what would happen to Fort Howard. I thought it was going to close several times, and we helped fight those efforts. But I'm happy to hear that there is a possible direction for the old place."

If the Fort Howard project is approved, the federal government would charge the state a minimal transfer fee to build a retirement home on the property, Smith said.

Officials at Charlotte Hall -- opened in 1985 -- are seeking to add 126 beds to their 378-bed facility.

All of the domiciliary beds at Charlotte Hall are filled, McMillan said, adding, "Most of the empty beds we get are caused by death." A majority of the population there has medical needs, some comprehensive, or suffer from illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease.

The annual operating cost at Charlotte Hall is $1.7 million, nearly two-thirds of that coming from the federal government and individual patients.

In addition to Charlotte Hall and Fort Howard, other veterans facilities in Maryland include the VA Medical Center in Baltimore; the VA Medical Center in Perry Point, Cecil County; and VA Rehabilitation and Extended Care Center on Loch Raven Boulevard in North Baltimore.

Along with patients served at Charlotte Hall, 476,076 Maryland veterans received treatment at those facilities, ranging from outpatient clinics to hospice care, last fiscal year, Smith said.

Pub Date: 2/10/99

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