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Group says outreach component could make proposed Bemidji Veterans Home unique

Proponents of a Minnesota veterans home in Bemidji don't have a site yet, but they know what they want to build.

While the core of the home remains skilled care beds, "we want a continuum of services," Dr. Ralph Morris, retired state Department of Health official, said Saturday.

The Bemidji veterans home should "be a strong component of reaching beyond the walls."

About 20 members of the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force met Saturday morning at the Beltrami County Administration Building to compare notes and view a PowerPoint presentation on the task force's effort.

The regional group seeks state and federal authority to locate a Minnesota veterans home in Bemidji, a northern Minnesota regional center with access to medical facilities and nursing programs.

A 100-bed facility could cost $25 million, but if a federal Veterans Administration priority, the federal government would pay up to 65 percent of construction costs. It is hoped state bonding will play a role in the needed matching monies.

"A plan to work outside the walls could set this aside," Beltrami County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick said of making the proposal unique to draw VA attention. "We need a big picture or big idea why this is a unique spot."

Morris, who is task force vice chairman, said the state now has 700 skilled care nursing home beds for veterans in Minnesota, the nearest to Bemidji in Silver Bay and Fergus Falls. There are also 200 board and care rooms at VA nursing homes.

The Bemidji facility would have 100 skilled care beds plus a number of "swing" beds for assisted living-type housing, Morris said.

The home should follow a "resident-centered model," he said, using best practices techniques such as cluster housing where a small number of residents are in a wing, complete with kitchen, rather than an institutional setting.

"We also want to go beyond the walls," he said, such as offering day and evening programs for veterans, adult day care services, in-home services and partnering with private and non-profit services.

"We really want to draw on the various veterans groups in the community," Morris said. "Our aspirations are to reach out to Vietnam veterans and veterans of the global war on terrorism."

Veterans today are younger but have greater needs, such as with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There is a changing definition of a veteran," Morris said. "It's no longer the old situation of a vet siting in a rocking chair. There are more women veterans now. And the Reserve and National Guard are sending us younger veterans. There are also gaps in services to rural and American Indian veterans."

"We've got 19-year-old veterans coming back from Iraq," said Bemidji City Councilor Kevin Waldhausen. "Veterans aren't returning as individuals, but at company levels to one area. Their needs are getting greater and greater."

Task force members said they thought an active outreach component would help bring uniqueness to a Bemidji proposal.

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, and Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, both have bills in the current session as placeholders should the Legislature consider a bonding bill this year.

The task force faces an April 15 deadline to submit a pre-design application to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which then if accepted goes into its listing of national projects, It needs to rise to a top priority before being funded, however.

That could take years, but the task force is ready.

"In northern Minnesota we have only begun our work to make this vision a reality," said Beltrami County Commissioner Joe Vene, task force chairman. "We know it's not going to be easy or quick, but certainly our resolve is rekindled because we know it's terribly important to our veterans and, indeed, to the general public in our area."

Vene previewed a PowerPoint presentation that will be available for task force members to take to community groups to show what the project is about and the need. It was premiered last week before the Bemidji Sunrise Rotary Club.

There are 32,055 veterans in a 14-county area that the Bemidji facility would serve. Currently, there are 62 skilled nursing care beds in Silver Bay and 85 beds at Fergus Falls.

"A large area has been underserved or unserved, and we want to bridge that gap with the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Initiative," Vene said.

"We're building and designing a northern Minnesota veterans home as a 21st century model, rather than a 1950s domiciliary," Vene said.

A location committee is working on possible sites for the veterans home, but decided at this time not to narrow the selection down. First thought to totally locate it on public lands, it may now be necessary to mix with private lands to be nearer to medical facilties such as North Country Regional Hospital and MeritCare Clinic-Bemidji.

A delegation that visited the Fergus Falls Veterans Home said that facility is co-located with a VA outpatient community-based services clinic.

"We're working with a hypothetical design right now," said Lucachick, an architect. "We need a piece of ground to design a home to fit that site."

It was decided to submit a general schematic of a veterans home to the Legislature and in the pre-design application, along with five or six possible sites, and decide on a final site later.

It was announced that the Headwaters Regional Development Commission would serve as the clearinghouse for task force matters, including the collection of letters of support for the initiative, group e-mail lists and project documents.

The full task force will meet again 10 a.m. April 4 at the County Administration Building to review a pre-design application draft