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Veterans home talks proceed

Undaunted by a state study that puts Bemidji 10th out of 17 Minnesota cities as a viable location for a veterans nursing home, a local task force plans to continue its efforts.

The task force had 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.

The task force met Saturday to go over the report and decide what direction to take, according to a summary of the meeting.

"Originally the study was going to look at various community assets including the facility, the facility campus and the amenities of the surrounding environment to determine a short list of five or six top communities," the summary states.

"However, the third phase was modified instead to serve as guide for communities to develop proposals for the Legislature and the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs to consider," it added.

With several communities wanting a veterans home, and the uncertainty of state funding to match federal construction funds, what the 2010 Legislature does with the study is unknown. The actually decision may take years, some say.

New to the task force is Paul Hanson, president and CEO of North Country Health Services, who helped with veterans home siting efforts for Glendive, Mont., the summary said.

"He highlighted the importance of an engaged local veterans community, involvement from the local medical community, and a partnership with local legislators," said the summary. "He noted that the Montana effort lasted seven years and that the competition was very aggressive."

While a site has not yet been determined, the task force ideally would like to locate a veterans home on public land near medical facilities, such as North Country Regional Hospital or the Community-Based Outpatient Veterans Administration Satellite Clinic.

"In discussing the experiences of the Glendive project, it was suggested that there may be wisdom in considering some alternative facility ownership and operations models," the summary said.

The task force also heard of the meeting between task force Chairman Joe Vene, Vice Chairman Ralph Morris and County Administrator Tony Murphy with state Veterans Affairs Deputy Commissioner Gilbert Acevedo.

According to the summary:

"Mr. Acevedo emphasized four concerns.

"1. Ongoing medical costs to serve veterans associated with a new veterans home is a big concern. That is the primary reason for giving higher consideration to communities' near existing VA Medical Centers.

"2. Need a 10-15 acre site donated to the state for the building.

"3. Ideally, community would provide the required local capital match for the project ($7 million to $8 million).

"4. Proposals to control or to reduce the annual operating costs of the new facility."

As part of the siting concerns, the report cited mandatory concerns that a facility be located within 100 minutes of an existing home, 60 minutes from a VA medical center or Community-Based Outpatient Clinic, and presence of an acute care hospital in the community that is licensed by the Minnesota Department of Health.

Twenty-seven communities, including Bemidji, made that cut.

The task force decided to meet again in January to assess what the 2010 Legislature may do.

"Also, the importance of conducting some focused discussion on how medical services could be provided to a Bemidji veterans home was emphasized," the summary said. "Finally, the need to develop a strategy to select a site and to secure the needed capital match was discussed."

Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, who wasn't at Saturday's meeting, also said it is important to assess the Legislature's intent.

"As you know, Sen. (Rod) Skoe (as well as our local representatives) and I are committed to doing what we can to bring a veterans home to our area," Olson said in an e-mail. "While this may be a long-term effort, collaboration will be key to eventually achieving this goal.

"If the committee would like to discuss with me a strategy for success at the state Legislative level, I would welcome the opportunity to meet with the committee before session begins in February," Olson wrote. "As you know, once session begins our options are pretty much limited to weekends, which is usually difficult for others."

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.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will actually make the decision to build a veterans home, after which it provides up to 65 percent of construction costs, which could reach $25 million to $30 million. The task force hopes to seek state bonding for the local match.

Cities ranked in the study include:

1. Little Falls; 2. Brainerd; 3. Crosby; 4. Montevideo; 5. Willmar; 6. Paynesville; 7. Aitkin; 8. Olivia; 9. New Ulm; 10. Bemidji; 11. Bagley; 12. Moose Lake; 13. Blue Earth; 14. Hibbing; 15. Virginia; 16. Grand Rapids; 17. Deer River.