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Commentary: Why northern Minnesota veterans need a 'home'

Why is there a group of veterans, elected officials and other concerned citizens (the Northern Minnesota Veteran's Home Initiative) working to place a veterans home in northern Minnesota?

-- 32,000 veterans live in northern Minnesota.

-- Veterans in rural areas and on reservations use fewer services than their urban counterparts because of long commuting times and distances.

-- Veterans drive over three hours to access care provided by veterans homes.

-- Veterans suffer from chronic illnesses -- diabetes, heart disease, etc.; traumatic brain injury; loss of limbs; back injury; post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

-- Services for women and younger veterans are extremely limited.

-- Current waiting time for a veterans home bed ranges from three to nine months.

This multi-dimensional group of citizens is following the recommendations of the Governor's Veterans Long-Term Care Advisory Commission Report from November 2007. The Northern Minnesota Initiative is proposing a regional hub with a core service of skilled nursing beds for both rehabilitation and long-term care in a residential setting.

The proposed hub will be located in the northern part of the state, where the nearest veterans home is more than a three-hour drive away. The location of the proposed home will bring services closer to rural and American Indian veterans.

Along with skilled nursing beds the Initiative plans to provide additional beds for assisted living and domiciliary care. Perhaps more importantly, the Initiative wants to provide services and programs to give veterans options beyond institutional care. These services could include partial hospitalization programs, evening programs, adult day care, home health care and telemedicine.

The Initiative will go "beyond the walls" of the proposed home and reach out to the changing population of the Minnesota's veterans. With the aging World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Gulf War veterans and the increased involvement of Army Reserves and National Guard in peacekeeping missions and the war on global terrorism, it is imperative that services for veterans be expanded and redefined.

In addition, an increased number of women and younger veterans (20- and 30-year-olds) have a need for services that are currently minimal or do not exist. Treatment for PTSD is just one example of a service that needs to reach out to all veterans involved in combat.

The Initiative cannot accomplish these goals alone. Veterans homes must build on partnerships with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers (and Bemidji's community-based outpatient clinic), the Indian Health Service, Minnesota's Department of Veterans Affairs, state programs for the elderly, and local community programs including private, non-profit, public services and a variety of veterans service associations

The success of this Initiative relies upon the informed and active support of the community at large. We encourage you to become informed and involved.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln:

"Let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; and care for him who shall have borne the battle"

Dr. Ralph Morris, a retired Minnesota Department of Health physician, represented the Minnesota National Guard on the Governor's Veterans Long-Term Care Advisory Commission and is vice chairman of the Northern Minnesota Veteran's Home Initiative. He is also a retired U.S. Army Reserves colonel.