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Veterans health care gets boost from federal budget

When U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad visited his uncle in Fargo's VA Medical Center 43 years ago, the ward lacked air conditioning, and temperatures climbed to 100 degrees.

During a Tuesday meeting with local veterans service officials at the medical center, Conrad noted that changes have been made to improve patient care, but said there's still room for improvement.

"We all know that more needs to be done," he said.

The medical center will get extra help with those improvements through a $5 billion in additional funds Congress passed last month. Conrad said the 12 percent increase in funding is the largest ever.

The money will go to facilities like the one in Fargo to improve buildings and medical services for veterans.

"We want to put additional money where it will make the greatest impact for patients," Conrad said. "We want to make sure they are getting world-class treatment."

The Fargo medical facility has made several improvements over the years, including a recent remodel of the Community Living Center, which moved its last patients in on Monday.

The center also expanded veterans' homes in cities across North Dakota.

"From a facilities standpoint, we're in pretty good shape, but it's taken a while to get there," Conrad said.

Jim Brent, a retired veterans service officer for Cass County, thanked Conrad for his work with veterans health care. "Nobody does it better than you," he told the senator.

On top of building and renovation improvements, officials at the meeting expressed the need for more mental health programs, as well as concern over the backlog of claims and appeals overwhelming the VA health system.

Conrad said he hopes the new budget will help alleviate patient waiting lists by employing more staff to treat patients, as well as increase flexibility in patients' ability to seek treatment outside of the VA system.