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Hurdles remain for veterans home in Bemidji

BEMIDJI -- While the U.S. Department of Defense plans to reduce the U.S. military to pre-World War II levels, veterans from that war and other conflicts are in need of a veterans home in greater Minnesota. Slow progress by the federal government is hindering development on the state and county levels, local officials say.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene and co-chair Ralph Morris hosted a Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force meeting Saturday in Bemidji.

State Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, State Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick and Beltrami County Veteran Service Officer Scotty Allison completed the panel.

“The problem is not our proposed home in northern Minnesota or Bemidji, it’s that we aren’t serving vets anywhere,” Lucachick said. “That’s the message we have to send to Washington D.C.”

Allison explained where the task force sits in regard to building a veterans home in Bemidji to an audience including Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht, veterans and concerned area citizens.

In brief, materialization of a veterans home in Bemidji is a few years off. A nursing home for veterans in the Twins Cities must be completed before plans can move forward in greater Minnesota, a federal funding match needs to be received and competition with Montevideo for funds will need to be addressed.

“We’ve got this rock and a hard place going on because federal government is dysfunctional,” Persell said.

Panelists agreed that if the state of Minnesota tried a go-it-alone approach and proceeded with plans to build and run a veterans home before landing matching federal funds, it could lose out on federal money altogether.

“There are 50 states in the union that are competing for these same kinds of services,” Vene said.

There are 3,212 veterans living in Beltrami County. Allison said regardless of where a veteran comes from, if they are a veteran in Beltrami County requesting services, they will be helped. Lucachick said a site has been donated for a veterans home in Bemidji and having Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in the city is a benefit.

Bemidji now has one facility that functions as what Allison called a “quasi-veterans home” with 21 veterans at Sanford Health Neilson Place.

Approximately 7 percent of the total population in Beltrami County are veterans. Allison said 51 percent of veterans in Beltrami County are combat vets.

“Forty-eight percent of our veterans are age 65 or older,” Allison said. “We have a very aging population of veterans, which is one of the reasons why we might need a veterans home.”

Allison added a main concern is for homeless veterans, which Bemidji has, as well as a Native American population that isn’t as large in Montevideo.

Three legislative bills, among many in the House and Senate, will affect veterans services in relation to veterans housing and long-term care throughout the state. Allison outlined the bills: HF 2287, would allocate $50,000 in grants for a veterans home study and $250,000 distributed to five communities for a study on housing needs for veterans for fiscal year 2015; HF 2556 would provide $250,000 for a five community needs assessment study on housing for veterans and HF 2557 could change eligibility standards and delegate county veterans service officers to encourage veterans to participate in MNsure, long-term care insurance and dental insurance.

“The reason that a housing study has to be conducted is because of a federal cap right now on veterans bits,” Saxhaug said. “To get the feds on board here this study is very important.”

Eligibility standards would be affected in such a way that Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, former prisoners of foreign wars, Purple Heart recipients and veterans with 70 percent higher service-connected disability would be given first priority in admission to a state-run veterans home.

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