Lawmakers consider adding 2 Minnesota veterans homes
ST. PAUL—Advocates for the construction of two new state-run veterans homes in greater Minnesota say they may have finally gained legislative footing in a decade-long pursuit of state funding.
The House Veterans Affairs Division unanimously approved a bill Monday, Feb. 20 that would appropriate $16 million in bond funds to construct a home in Bemidji and Montevideo.
Minnesota operates five veterans homes throughout the state at least 100 miles from both communities.
Joe Vene, a U.S. Army veteran and former Beltrami County commissioner, identified the distance as one of Bemidji veterans' greatest barriers to accessing those resources.
One of several Bemidji and Montevideo residents to testify in favor of the bill, Vene said the initial committee vote left him with "cautious optimism" for the bill's future.
"I feel we have traction now and the unanimity of purpose in the Legislature that will bring us the desired result at last," hde said.
The bill's sponsor Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, said annual operating costs of more than $5 million could prompt more scrutiny at its next stop in the House State Government Finance Committee.
"That's going to be the trickier challenge," Miller said. "You can decide to allocate bonding money to pay for the capital-expensive facility (construction), but the state is also responsible for one-third of the operating expenses. How do you budget for something three or four years down the road?"
A similar bill sponsored by Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, is making its way through the state Senate.
Senate Finance Chair Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, said she expects veterans projects to stand a good chance with the new Senate Republican majority.
"We're always very supportive of veteran projects," she said. "It's a matter of realigning some budgets to align to some of the priorities we feel are very near and dear to us in the Republican Caucus, and veterans is one of them."
Montevideo City Council President Marvin Garbe, a National Guard veteran of 37 years, said he expects a "sticking point" trying to get the funding included in Gov. Mark Dayton's bonding bill, which finances public construction projects.
Veterans Affairs appropriations in the governor's $1.5 billion bonding bill so far include $7.85 million to repair the Minneapolis Veterans Home campus truss bridge and about $5 million in repairs to existing veterans homes.
"I do not think the funding will happen this year unless something tears apart the whole proposal this year," Garbe said.
The homes' bonding money would fund nursing home and assisted living accommodations tailored to the veterans' medical and social needs, particularly for aging veterans.
Throughout the state, about 58 percent of veterans are over the age of 60.
A Census Bureau survey of 16 counties in northern Minnesota found that 55 percent of veterans in the area are 65 or older, representing a 5 percent increase from 2011.
For some aging veterans, care provided at regular nursing homes fails to meet their unique needs, like treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Veterans have different medical needs than other people," said Beltrami County Veterans Service Officer Scotty Allison. "Not only do you have the physical, you sometimes have the mental. Many of the diseases veterans experience now are caused by things like exposure to Agent Orange, which brings on various physical ailments."
The homes also could offer residents better access to staff and medical practitioners who understand their experiences.
Montevideo Assistant City Manager Angie Steinbach said this understanding helps veterans engage with medical practitioners and can improve treatment.
"For many veterans, military service and operational deployment lead to a strong sense of identity and belonging," she said. "For health care professionals working with veterans and demonstrating an understanding of military experience can greatly enhance the therapeutic alliance and delivery of effective treatment."
Steinbach was among Montevideo residents at the helm of a communitywide push to fund the home.
A local committee raised $5 million toward the total cost of the $30 million facility, with federal funding accounting for $20 million and about $5.2 million needed in state funding.
"Meeting the federally required minimum demographic and operational characteristic requirements will make it a good institution, but the community must make it a home," Steinbach said "Montevideo area citizens acknowledge this and will continue to fight for the construction and operations of a veterans home in our community to support and serve the veterans in our state."