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Distance, access to records hinder medical care, say veterans, congressman

Clinton Romesha, center, retired Army staff sgt. and Medal of Honor recipient, listens to Congressman Kevin Cramer during Cramer's Veteran's Advisory Board meeting regarding veterans health access issues in Devils Lake Monday. At left is Russell "Rusty" Ouart, a Purple Heart recipient and board member. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Members of Congressman Kevin Cramer's Veteran's Advisory Board gather in Devils Lake Monday to discuss veteran's health access issues. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

DEVILS LAKE — Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., vowed Monday to work toward making the proposed 40-mile rule — legislation intended to ease long waiting lists for veterans seeking medical care in some parts of the country — relevant to North Dakotans.

Both houses of Congress passed similar bills last week in the aftermath of a national uproar over scheduling backlogs and other problems facing the Veterans Affairs department.

The 40-mile rule establishes a two-year program to allow veterans living more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility to see the doctor of their choice. The Senate version calls for building 26 new VA medical facilities around the country.

“The spotlight’s on the VA right now, but it’s broader than that,” Cramer told members of his Veterans Advisory Board in a meeting in Devils Lake. “This is our moment. We have to pounce on it and make sure that we’re addressing the very real issues facing veterans and their health care.”

The board includes representatives of state military and veterans offices and organizations, as well as retired Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha, a Minot resident and  Medal of Honor recipient who was injured during a 2009 firefight in Afghanistan, and Russell “Rusty” Ouart, Fargo, an Iraqi War veteran and Purple Heart recipient who was injured in 2008.

“One of my early frustrations has been the distance issue,” Cramer told members of his Veterans Advisory Board here. “Forty miles is nothing in North Dakota. We’ve got veterans that have to travel more than 300 miles to get to the VA hospital in Fargo.”

Ahead of the issue

North Dakota has addressed some of the distance problems over the past couple of decades by opening veterans’ clinics throughout the state.

Besides the Fargo VA medical center, the state has community-based outpatient clinics in Grand Forks, Grafton, Jamestown, Minot, Bismarck, Dickinson and Williston.

A new Devils Lake Veterans Telehealth Clinic is scheduled to open in mid- to late-July in Mercy Hospital.

Romesha and Ouart said access to military medical records is a major roadblock to receiving treatment. They said the Department of Defense and VA lack a system to share such information. 

“I requested my medical records a year and a half before I got out,” Romesha said, adding that he didn’t receive them for more than a year after returning home.

Ouart said he never did receive his military medical records.

“If all the records are digitized, why can’t they be shared, so we don’t have this problem,” North Dakota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Lonnie Wangen asked.

They also discussed ways to improve access and cooperation between veteran and nonveteran health care facilities and the need for qualified counselors throughout the state.

“In North Dakota, anyone can put out a shingle and say they counsel veterans. They don’t have to be qualified,” said Brenda Bergsrud, veterans coordinator and benefits specialist for the North Dakota Veterans Affairs.

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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