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Joe Vene: Minnesota needs another veterans home

Where should the next Minnesota veterans home be located?

Eight hundred seventy-four veterans are currently waiting for admission to the five veterans homes in the state. If Minnesota is going to address the needs of our former soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way to protect our freedom, Minnesota needs to build another home. Competition is currently fierce for where the next home should be. Location and delivery of care capability are key. The Legislature has a tough decision on the location and funding of the next home. All the current homes are located in the southern part of the state with the exception of the home in Silver Bay in an extreme easterly direction. There is a huge void of services in central and northwestern Minnesota for veterans home services. The answer to the location of the next home should be simple but it is not.

A survey in 2009 by the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs put the Bemidji area as 10th on a list of 17 possible locations of a new home in the state. Why so low? The answer is our remote location and distance to the nearest VA hospital. We believe those are the very reasons why Bemidji should be at the top of the list.

Since 2009 Bemidji has rapidly developed into a regional medical center under the guidance of Sanford Health. The outpatient clinics and regional hospital are under one leadership team. Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota has more than 100 physicians with plans to add another 20 to 25 physicians in the next five years. The hospital is expanding in areas of cardiology, orthopedics and urology not to mention primary care services. Bemidji State University graduates more than 100 RNs every year who will address and accommodate the upcoming nursing shortage this country will soon be facing. In addition to the health care resources in our area we are also a transportation, shopping, government and recreational regional center.

Our veterans and their families should have care as close to their homes as possible. We are located closest to the three largest reservations in the state with our many American Indian veterans. The greatest weakness translates to the greatest need. To force aging soldiers and their families to travel hundreds of miles for nursing home services is egregious.

Our very distance to the nearest VA hospital should put the Bemidji area at the top of the list for the next veterans home in the state. Sanford Health has generously donated land near the hospital to build the home. Our community has the resources to support a veterans home. And most importantly, we have 32,000 veterans in northern Minnesota who need the access to a close-by veterans home for their care. Veterans will need a continuum of care within and beyond the walls of the Northern Minnesota Veterans Home throughout their lifetimes as they advance in age over the next several decades. As we define ourselves, we will identify statistics and demographics related to veterans as to: primary care needs; aging and care needs; mental health related to post-traumatic stress disorder; traumatic brain injury; age onset diabetes. Veterans and their families, distanced within the vast geography of northern Minnesota by two, three and four hours travel time from pre-existing care facilities is unacceptable. Veterans must never be treated as disposable. The Northern Minnesota Veterans Home will bring veterans the health care services they need within reasonable proximity to where they are found to live.

Joe Vene

Beltrami County Commissioner

President, Association of Minnesota Counties

Chair, Northern Minnesota Veterans Home Task Force