Peterson: Process to get veterans home will be slow

A community task force is at work developing a pre-design application to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by an April 15 deadline. But the application just puts the local effort in the pile, which must rise in priority.

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It also must be approved by the Minnesota Legislature, which is awaiting an assessment of veterans home needs in Minnesota — a study which has yet to begin.

The federal government will pay up to 65 percent of construction costs, with a typical 90-bed home costing about $23 million. The rest would come as matching funds from local sources or the state.

Peterson has worked with several 7th District cities to gain veterans facilities, starting with a veterans home in Fergus Falls, and with the Community Veterans Outpatient Satellite Clinic in Bemidji.

“There’s other people vying for this money,” Peterson said, with Willmar and Montevideo both seeking a veterans home. But it goes farther than that, he said, as this VA district includes several Midwest states.

The VA’s multi-state health care network, known as VISN 23, is headed by Dr. Robert Petzel.

“Within that VISN, he has to rate things and what they look at is where are the other veterans homes, where do the veterans live, in trying to prioritize who’s going to be next on the list,” Peterson said.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Lakes Democrat encourages the local effort to continue.

“They’re doing what they need to do — they’re getting their plans together, they’ve got their lobbying going,” Peterson said. “But there’s a lot of competition.”

While projects in the whole VISN would be considered, Peterson said it’s mostly Minnesota that is seeking facilities. “It’s largely Minnesota, because what they look at… is where are the other facilities.”

With veterans homes at Fergus Falls and Silver Bay, it’s that large geographic hole that local officials are hoping will win a veterans home for Bemidji.

“The more you do this, you open a clinic, the more homes you build, the more business you get,” Peterson said. “And the more it costs the government. And that is also figured into this.”

That could be where the Bemidji project stumbles the most, Peterson said, as the federal government may not be able to afford to operate any new veterans homes.

“We had the biggest increase in history in the veterans budget,” said Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “And that has helped. But, going forward … if we get ourselves into so much debt, so much behind the 8-ball, this will affect things like this veterans home.”

Peterson voted against the $787 billion economic stimulus package because it does add to the national debt and there is no plan to repay it. The House Blue Dogs, a conservative Democrat caucus concerned about deficits, met with President Barack Obama, who told them he didn’t plan on other large debt bill, Peterson said.

“This is the last time we will have a big bill and not pay for it,” Obama told the Blue Dogs. “Going forward, we’re going to cut everything.”

That’s the mindset, Peterson said. “If that’s what they follow through on, that means when the budget comes out, instead of having increases, there’s going to be decreases. And that’s going to put things like the veterans home — not just in Bemidji but in general around the country — in jeopardy.

“It’s nice to have a veterans home and these people deserve it, but they are other priorities that I think people will say are higher priorities within the system,” he added.

Local officials are hoping that the economic stimulus bill may contain funding for veterans home construction, but Peterson said the bill does not. Still, the Bemidji proposal has merit.

“You should have a good case,.” Peterson said, but it might take six to eight years for the project to rise in priority.

He also encourages the task force to brief Petzel on the project at the VA regional level.

“It took us a long time in Fergus,” Peterson remembers. “I worked on that in the state Legislature. I put in a bill in 1983 to build a veterans home in Fergus Falls. It finally got built 10, 15 years later.”

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, who is carrying a bill for a veterans home in Bemidji, remains more optimistic.

“I’m confident we’ll be all right with this thing,” Persell said Wednesday in an interview in his St. Paul office. “It might not happen overnight, I don’t think it will.”

While Peterson is a help as a major committee chairman, Persell also points to Rep. Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, who chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Some of us are slightly more optimistic than Rep. Peterson, and I would offer Rep. Oberstar has a little bit different take on some of this stuff,” Persell said, including the possibility of economic stimulus funds.

“It depends on where you’re sitting at any given time,” the Bemidji Democrat said. “They’ll be very helpful — I’ve gotten that from both of them.”

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