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Pioneer Editorial: Bemidji gets role in vets' health care

Bemidji's emergence as a major regional medical center got an additional boost on Friday with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' announcement that it would open a community-based outpatient clinic in Bemidji by the end of the year.

Northwest Minnesota has demonstrated the need for such facility for a decade, and the VA has agreed. But the lack of congressional funding pushed that need off. Now, with a new VA restructuring of how the agency delivers health care, plus anticipated savings through that plan and in efficiencies, the VA will start funding satellite clinics, phased over several years.

Two cities have competed for the medical facility --Bemidji and Fosston -- and even that decision was in doubt Friday as the initial word from the VA was that it had approved a community-based outpatient clinic in "the Bemidji-Fosston area." But final statements from both the VA's Washington, D.C., headquarters and the Minneapolis VA Medical Center specify Bemidji for the new community clinic.

It only makes sense, as Bemidji hosts a major regional hospital and the largest clinic of MeritCare outside of Fargo, N.D., itself. Add to that peripheral services in medical equipment, rehabilitation therapy, mental health services, and other medical-related specialties, and Bemidji is the logical site. Also, as the city at the center of three American Indian reservations with high numbers of veterans and with Indian Health Services facilities in Bemidji, Cass Lake and Red Lake, plus that Beltrami County ranks high in the state for the number of veterans and VA benefits secured, it is only logical that a veterans medical facility be located here.

But that does not mean that Bemidji can service others. Outreach services can be provided to Fosston, or any other regional town that desires the help for its non-ambulatory veterans. Plus, Fosston will gain with a facility both east and west, as the Grand Forks Air Force Base is slated for a community-based outpatient clinic in 2007.

The key remains, however, that the services are needed regionally and will help serve hundreds of veterans who now must regularly travel to Fargo, Brainerd, St. Cloud or even Minneapolis for their veterans health care. The Bemidji clinic is estimated to see some 2,500 patients a year, and will have eight staff.

We're pleased that Department of Veterans Affairs has recognized its important role in providing accessible health care to our nation's veterans, and that Bemidji will play such a integral role in an upgraded health care delivery system.