Veterans home in Beltrami County faces hard sell
BEMIDJI -- Ranking 10th in a state report of needed veterans facilities means a hard sell ahead for supporters of a Northern Minnesota Veterans Home in Beltrami County.
"There has to be a convergence of the political will and the public will for this to happen," Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene said Saturday in an interview.
Vene chairs the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force which since last winter has been working to gain federal and state authority to build a veterans nursing facility in the Bemidji area.
"The challenge will be in how to package the proposal," said Vene.
The task force has been awaiting a Legislature-authorized study which prioritizes where new state-run veterans facilities should be located. That report, "Community Identification Study for a New Minnesota Veterans Home," released in late summer didn't bode well for the northern effort.
Using a number of criteria, the report said the best location for a new home would be in central Minnesota, not northern Minnesota, even though the greatest population of veterans without nearby services is in northern Minnesota.
The report listed Little Falls as its top recommendation, followed by Brainerd and Crosby. Bemidji ranked 10th of 17 sites. Bagley was right behind at 11th.
The study ranked criteria, in order, as mandatory characteristics sought by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, demographic and operational characteristics and community assets.
Among the mandatory characteristics are that "veterans homes be reasonably accessible to veterans medical facilities," the report states. That means a home needs to be at least 100 minutes travel time away from an existing veterans home, be within 60 minutes travel time from an existing community-based outpatient clinic or a Veterans Administration medical center, and have an acute care hospital licensed by the state.
Even though Bemidji has a VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, Vene believes central Minnesota scored better because of its closeness to major VA medical centers in St. Cloud and Minneapolis.
"The most important characteristic for successful operation of a veterans home discussed in the study is access to a VAMC and to a CBOC," the report states. "Of these, access to a VAMC is more important. A VAMC provides full medical services for veterans and convenient facilities for operation of a veterans home."
Currently, there are only two veterans homes servicing northern Minnesota, in Fergus Falls and Silver Bay. The task force determined that 32,055 veterans live in a 14-county area around Bemidji, which includes three American Indian reservations.
What the study ranked higher was apparently those areas where veterans were closest to major VA medical facilities, rather than putting veterans homes where the greater population of unserved vets live.
"Obviously, Bemidji is a regional center," Vene said. "There's a convergence of people here from all over northern Minnesota. Tremendously relevant is the pre-existence of the veterans outpatient clinic and the immediate proximity of the great Indian reservations Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth from which a substantial veterans population will receive service."
Vene finds it ironic that the task force's initial factor in its support was that northern Minnesota is so far away from existing veterans services is now working against the proposal.
The report means that the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force has a hard sell before it, but not an impossible one, he said. A good proposal could hinge on making an active partnership with a local hospital to provide VA-like services.
While not naming a facility, the most logical would be North Country Health Services, especially if it put in its five-year plans a dedicated 10-acre site for a Northern Minnesota Veterans Home and worked out reimbursement details with state and federal VA officials over care to vets.
"Hopefully the conclusion can be directed to bringing services where the need exists rather than bringing people far away to services that exist," Vene said.
"We do have all of the pre-existing vehicles," Vene said. "We have here the hospital, we have ambulance service, we have the clinic, we have Indian Health Service, we have a very active social senior center, we have the training programs for nursing at BSU, we have the allied health care training at the technical college.
"It seems to me that the stars line up perfectly as far as a community being able to be the natural place for a veterans home," Vene said, "not the least of which it is a destination point for all of northern Minnesota."
Vene said a task force delegation met with state Department of Veterans Affairs officials Oct. 9 about the study, conducted by Engan Associates and Ulteig of Willmar. It included Vene, Beltrami County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick, County Administrator Tony Murphy, task force associate chairman Dr. Ralph Morris and Lake of the Woods Veterans Service Officer Rick Rone, who is also mayor of Baudette.
The challenge will be tipping the scales in favor of Bemidji by providing a 10-acre building site with proximity to pre-existing medical facilities and services, Vene said, "and inducements to get legislative approval to site a veterans home for northern Minnesota."
A local partnership needs to be forged, he said,. "Would a local hospital be willing to assert that, yes, a veterans home is part of their medical future plans for their medical campus or not?"
Vene plans to call a meeting soon of the task force to gain input on the next steps.
"We will meet to talk about what ought to be our strategy in terms of pursuing the goal of bringing the veterans home to reality, to reassert the public will and also to discern what is the political will," Vene said.
The task force must submit a proposal by April to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs to get in line for a home, with that agency making the final decision which comes with major construction funding. It will also likely ask for state bonding funds, which can be used to match the federal funds.
Also a question mark is state VA capacity to take on operations of another veterans home, he said.
"It would be a high degree of probability to bring to reality a veterans home here in Bemidji and Beltrami County if we can come together and identify a site location," Vene said. "And if we can come together and say there are hospital services available to us, and if we can see how a health care facility, like a hospital, can black-line funding and financing to provide veterans health care in a hospital setting."
The task force also hopes to seek a meeting with Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, chairman of the House Agriculture, Rural Economics and Veterans Affairs Committee.
The House Capital Investment Committee heard a pitch earlier this month for bonding to convert the old Brainerd Regional Treatment Center into a veterans home. Making the pitch was former state Sen. Don Samuelson, DFL-Brainerd.
He said many of the buildings are in good shape and the infrastructure (sewer and water) is there. He said a bonding bill is one of the most important bills lawmakers will pass.
"You can put people to work right now," Samuelson said, as reported by the Brainerd Daily Dispatch.
Steve Rosenow, a retired veterans service officer, cited the study that listed central Minnesota as the best location for a veterans home.
Juhnke, a member of the bonding panel, said he was disappointed in the study because it did not address all the elements of the issue that were requested.
"The study is very thin on what we really need to address care for the veterans," he said in the Dispatch.