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What the local veterans are worried about: Honor guards, medical coverage and tons more paperwork

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson talks about his days as a staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard band. He met with veterans in Detroit Lakes Saturday. Nathan Bowe/Tribune 1 / 3
Vietnam War-era veterans lined up at an honors ceremony given by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, right, who now sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Nathan Bowe/Tribune2 / 3
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, left, honors Detroit Lakes veteran Dave Coalwell on Saturday. Nathan Bowe/Tribune3 / 3

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson honored Vietnam War-era veterans and listened to concerns voiced by some of the 40-some military veterans at a meeting this morning (Saturday) at Detroit Lakes city hall.

Peterson, who chairs the House Agriculture Committee, has now joined the House Veterans Affairs Committee as well, with an immediate goal of pushing through funding for the construction of new veterans homes in Bemidji and Montevideo.

"One reason I'm doing this is because of the reconfiguration of the House and us (Democrats) taking over the majority," he said. "I was able to maneuver a waiver to get back on the Veterans Affairs Committee." Under House rules, he said, the chair of the Ag Committee can't be on any other committees. But there were four open seats on the Veterans Affairs Committee and he was able to rejoin it after 20-some years.

"I'm absolutely 100 percent committed to getting veterans homes in Bemidji and Montevideo," he said. "I guarantee this won't disappear down some black hole — we're going to get this going and get this done. It's much-needed in our area."

He said the Fargo Veterans Administration Hospital in Fargo has a good reputation in this area, as do VA hospitals in Minneapolis and St. Cloud, although they had some issues to work through in the past.

Becker County Veterans Service Officer Lauri Brooke told Peterson that ongoing operational funding for veterans homes has been a problem. "Not just getting them built, but funding for operations is an issue," she said.

Minnesota's five state Veterans Homes are located in Fergus Falls, Hastings, Luverne, Minneapolis and Silver Bay. "We operate 24/7 facilities that provide a combination of skilled nursing care, special care units for dementia and Alzheimer's, domiciliary care, rehabilitation services, recreational therapy, and work therapy programs," according to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs website.

Staffing the facilities can be a challenge, but the new veterans home in Bemidji will benefit from the flow of medical professionals graduating from Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, said Joe Vene, veterans legislative liaison for Beltrami County.

"We can't overstate our gratitude to you for all you've done for veterans over the years," he told Peterson.

One of the first issues that was brought up concerned providing stipends for honor guards, who often travel miles to provide funeral ceremonies for veterans. Depending on the jurisdiction, some honor guard units receive a $50-per-funeral stipend from the state and some do not.

There are also some sparsely populated areas where honor guards aren't available for funerals, Peterson said. "This is a big problem," he said. "I've got places in my district who can't perform that, there's just not enough people to do that." And young people aren't joining the veterans organizations like they used to, so the problem is likely to get worse, he said.

Originally the Minnesota National Guard worked with the state Veterans Affairs office to fund the $50 funeral stipend out of Support Our Troops license plate revenue, Brooke said, but the system changed and the Guard is no longer involved.

"Hopefully our buddies will be able to have a dignified service when they die," regardless of where they live, said Tom Frank of Detroit Lakes.

Excessive paperwork for veterans benefits was another issue brought up by county veterans service officers.

It amounts to reducing backlogs by rejecting applicants for minor paperwork errors, said Scotty Allison, veterans service officer for Beltrami County. "You should see the pension application for a wartime soldier, you have to be like a lawyer to do it," he said. In other cases, simple forms that used to be one page are now five pages long, he said.

"If you don't check the right block, they will reject it and send it back," agreed Brooke. "If I hadn't had training in this job, I would throw it up in the air."

The sad thing is, half the states in the nation don't have veterans service officers to help, and people who live there are on their own, Allison said. "It's unfair to veterans," he said. "I'd be willing to bet that 95 percent of people off the street fill them in incorrectly."

Minnesota is fortunate in that state law mandates that each county have a veterans service officer who is a veteran. Their job is to help veterans understand and apply for the benefits they have earned through their military service.

There was also some back and forth among veterans concerning the Express Scripts federal pharmacy program, operated through the Tricare health care program for active military, retirees, and their families.

One man said he has had numerous problems with Express Scripts, while another said he loves the program and it's been great for him.

"We work with Express Scripts a lot," Brooke said. "Either it's easy or it's not — there's no middle ground."

It's not a VA benefit, it's a Department of Defense benefit, she noted. "We very seldom have problems with VA meds," which come from the regional hospital in Fargo. "You can call in, mail in, very seldom do we have a problem," she said.

Allison, the Beltrami County veterans service officer in Bemidji, said he knows two veterans who have racked up big medical bills to the tune of about $45,000 because they missed a 90-day window to sign up for Medicare Part B when they turned 65.

Tricare covers people up to age 65, and Tricare for Life covers them after that, but it's not a seamless transition: Tricare ends, but Tricare for Life doesn't kick in unless people signed up for Medicare Part B when they turn 65, he said. So the two veterans were caught uninsured when they incurred the large medical bills. Brooke said they do their best to inform all veterans they talk with, but it's still a difficult time window.

The VA has been dragging its feet over covering several additional Agent Orange-related diseases including colon cancer and hypertension, and "we need to get that resolved," Peterson said.

Brooke said a number of Minnesota National Guard members from this area, who served an extended tour in Iraq in 2006, are having chronic respiratory problems, and the VA needs to get serious about covering Gulf War Syndrome.

Minnesota Sen. Kent Eken asked veterans what they thought about an idea to devote nursing home wings to veterans, serving as sort of miniature veterans homes across the state. "While it's nice to be near other veterans, it's also nice to be near family," he said. A nursing home in Twin Valley just closed, and having a veterans wing could help support local nursing homes and keep them strong, he said.

But some in the audience were concerned that the idea would have the effect of closing outstate veterans homes and centralizing them in the Twin Cities metro area.

There are three facilities in Detroit Lakes that operate under VA contracts now, noted Brooke.

Peterson said he takes some criticism for his long tenure in Congress, but that experience has its advantages. "One benefit is people listen to you," he said. The Congressional system is complicated and it takes a lot of years to figure out how to be effective, he said.

The Republican Party put term limits on its committee chairmen, Peterson said. "Six years and you're out," he said. "I told (former GOP Speaker John) Boehner 'I'm sick and tired of training your chairmen. They just get to where they know what they're doing and they're gone.'"

At the end of the meeting, Peterson individually honored Vietnam War-era vets with ceremonial pins, gave them a chance to talk briefly, and thanked them for their service.

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