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Pioneer Editorial: VA pick is positive for Bemidji

We'd like to believe that Gov, Mark Dayton's appointment Wednesday of retired Minnesota National Guard Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito as the next commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs brings the Bemidji area one step closer to securing a veterans nursing home.

A local group of people, led by Beltrami County Board Chairman Joe Vene, have been hard at work for nearly two years in trying to gain a veterans nursing home for our area. Currently, northern Minnesota is served by veterans nursing homes in Fergus Falls and Silver Bay -- opposite ends of the state from east to west.

A study by the local group shows that more than 30,000 veterans live in what would be the Bemidji service area, and it's an area that includes three American Indian reservations with high underserved veteran populations. And, Bemidji, with a satellite Veterans Administration medical clinic and a strong medical community, is the ideal location for a north-central veterans nursing home.

The process isn't an easy one; local officials had hoped for some planning and design funds in last year's bonding bill, but it wasn't to be. A state-commissioned study showed Bemidji down the list of priorities, as the VA wants their nursing homes located within an hour of major VA medical facilities. That means cities near Fargo or Minneapolis have higher priorities.

But we believe such facilities should be located as close to families as possible, not tucked away in metro areas and causing families to travel. It appears new VA Commissioner Shellito has the same thoughts.

It is important for veterans needing health care to stay close to home, Maj. Gen. Shellito told our Capitol Bureau reporter. That could help health care providers in those areas, he added, and make for better health services for all rural Minnesotans. Hr said he will talk to those who serve veterans around the state to see if they have special needs. For instance, some rural veterans complain that health care clinics are too far away.

The U.S. Veterans Administration makes the final decision on locating veterans nursing homes, but they first must have state backing. We hope that while Maj. Gen. Shellito must remain neutral among competing Minnesota cities, that he realizes there is a severe service gap in northern Minnesota.

Another plus is the addition of Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, to the House Veterans Services Division. Rep. Persell wants to be in the right place at the right time when the committee takes up the issue of locating a new veterans nursing home in Minnesota.

It's a long process, but Bemidji is looking a lot better.