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Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito encourages a grass-roots effort to supporters seeking a state-operated veterans nursing home in Bemidji at a meeting Thursday in the County Administration Building. At left is Beltrami County Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks while Commissioner Joe Vene is at right. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Shellito pledges to make Bemidji vets nursing home plan viable

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Bemidji's effort to seek a veterans nursing home got a boost Thursday from new Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Shellito.

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While needing to remain non-committal about the project as other Minnesota cities are competing for a veterans nursing home, Shellito told about 75 supporters Bemidji had the credentials to compete and can make a good case for it.

"Plant the seeds, see if it sticks and let it nurture," he told the group of mostly veterans organization officials and veterans service officers from throughout a 20-county area.

"The community has a strong case," Shellito said in an interview. "It has a strong reason or rationale for the need for the home. It would be a win for the community; it would be a win for the state. But there are other pockets. Outstate Minnesota is veteran rich. There are 17 communities that meet a lot of the criteria that Bemidji meets also."

Currently, northern Minnesota is served by veterans homes in Silver Bay and Fergus Falls.

Shellito, retired last fall as Minnesota National Guard's adjutant general, explained the process and the politicking needed to gain legislative support for the proposal.

Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, who chairs the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force, told Shellito that he was "preaching to the choir" and that the task force has been working for nearly three years with the goal of gaining a local veterans nursing home.

"You're the choir -- I'm just asking you to sing louder," Shellito said. "Stick to the basics."

While local proposers are working on a 90-bed nursing home with a different "model," such as offering a "hotel" for family members to visit their loved one and specializing in diabetes care in recognition of the high incidence of the disease on area American Indian reservations, Shellito cautioned care with what is pitched.

The state Legislature needs to approve a site for a nursing home, but it's the federal government that makes a final decision as it pays for 65 percent of construction costs. And the federal government likes only one design.

"The federal government likes one size fits all," Shellito said. "Your plan should have no specialists and should serve the general (veteran) population. Once it's built, you can add specialists or whatever you want."

A state report last year ranked Bemidji midway in a list of 17 viable Minnesota communities, dropping its ranking mostly because it doesn't meet the Veterans Administration requirement to be within an hour's drive of a VA hospital.

Shellito said he didn't understand the rule, and would work to change it in visits to Washington, D.C. There should be a possibility to contract with the local hospital to provide VA-like services.

The rule is outdated, Shellito said in the interview.

"If the state presents just the one site, then we go for it," he said. "A lot of the problem is the people who make these laws live out East. You can drive into three states in an hour. They sometimes just don't know the geographics, and once that's explained to them, they understand that, I think a strong case can be made that it's a nice thing to think about but it's not really reality. In fact, it would probably be of greater service to supplement the home with an outreach clinic also."

Bemidji is already the site of a VA community-based outreach clinic, which could serve many veterans' health care needs without driving to Fargo, St. Cloud or Minneapolis -- where VA hospitals are located.

But while encouraging Bemidji to work with its veterans organizations for a grass-roots effort to convince lawmakers of its proposal, Shellito said approval of any nursing home isn't a sure thing, at least until the economy improves, both at the state and federal level.

He also said legislative support should be sought from metro lawmakers as well.

"I think Minnesota can make strong cases," he said of convincing the federal government to approve a home. "First of all, it has a strong record of doing it well. The homes that we currently have now have national reputations. We don't have to sell the fact that if they build something here it will be done and done right."

Under VA rules, the state must make a 20-year commitment to operate a veterans nursilng home, or else the federal construction money must be returned, he said.

The Legislature probably won't do a bonding bill this year, if state matching money is needed, so any potential decision on a nursing home won't come until at least next year.

"The timetable is they need to start now planting the seeds and positioning and build the public support," Shellito said. "The economy will be the gorilla in the room. If the economy starts turning around ... there could be more regional construction."

"It is not lost upon us that beyond the call of duty efforts of our veterans service officers unceasingly extended to veterans," Vene told the group. "As well, the love and caring the people of northern Minnesota extend to our veterans through efforts such as the Yellow Ribbon project is deeply appreciated."

The Yellow Ribbon project, which Shellito heavily promoted as adjutant general, aids returning soldiers to transition back into the civilian lives.

"All of us are dedicated to caring for Minnesota's 400,000 or more veterans wherever they may be," Vene said. "That includes the 32,000 in northern Minnesota, along with substantial numbers of American Indain armed forces veterans on the reservations of Leech Lake, Red Lake, White Earth and Bois Forte."

Dr. Ralph Morris, task force vice chairman, said challenges yet to be solved include finding a site, finding funding to match the federal grant (about $10 million needed), minimizing the state role in ongoing operation so as to not take away from other state nursing homes, and making sure there is a strong system of auxiliary support services.

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