Vets tell House Speaker rural medical services must improve
By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
MINNEAPOLIS - Military veterans living in rural areas need more access to federal medical services, Minnesota veterans told the most influential member of Congress.
Veterans gathered for a discussion Monday with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they also are concerned with what they described as an inconsistent system for notifying veterans of their medical benefits.
Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, said Congress last year gave veterans affairs medical programs their biggest increase in more than 70 years. Still, after listening to veterans' frustrations for nearly an hour, Pelosi said more legislative action is needed to serve a growing number of veterans, including those living in rural areas. An estimated 5.8 million veterans will seek treatment from federal Department of Veterans Affairs facilities next year, she said.
"This is something we're aware of (and) we haven't done enough for," she said during a roundtable discussion at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis.
Pelosi was in Minnesota at the invitation of freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a National Guard veteran who has held veterans' forums in his southern Minnesota congressional district. The event Monday was in Minneapolis because there is no major veterans' medical facility in Walz's 1st Congressional District.
Veterans told Pelosi they receive good care at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center, but getting to the facility is difficult for those who live far from the Twin Cities.
"Many times the drive and the trip there is cause of more suffering than the condition itself," said Rob Gross, a Houston County veterans' service officer.
An estimated 45 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are from rural areas.
Veterans told Pelosi that community-based veterans' medical facilities spread throughout the state should provide more treatment options. They typically conduct blood tests, physicals and other general medical services, but adding services such as x-rays would help limit travel for some patients.
"These soldiers deserve to have great care and accessible care," said Steve O'Connor, a Veterans of Foreign Wars member.
Veterans said another problem they face is not knowing their medical benefits upon discharge. If soldiers do not fill out papers a certain way, their state and local veterans' affairs personnel do not get the information. That is a particular concern for active duty troops who return from service in small groups, as opposed to National Guard members who often return from duty in large groups and have thorough reintegration programs.
"How do we reach out to them?" Minnesota Veterans Affairs Commissioner Clark Dyrud wondered.
Lisa Jaeger told Pelosi it was four years after she left the Air Force in 2002 before she learned she was eligible for benefits. Jaeger, Wabasha County's veterans' service officer, said local officers like her do not have a list of veterans in their area and many veterans are unaware of their benefits.
Gerard Marking of Lake City told Pelosi that he served in three branches of the military and when he was discharged, he was only given a handout explaining what benefits were available.
That is not enough, Marking said. More should be done to get information to veterans.
Marking hesitated to say he believed many changes will come from the forum Monday.
"I think it's a drop in the bucket," he said of the issues discussed during the forum. "It ain't going to happen overnight, and I don't expect it to, but you've got to start somewhere."
Walz and Pelosi said Democratic lawmakers already have proposed increasing the mileage reimbursement for veterans who travel for their care. That was increased from 11 cents per mile to 28 cents per mile, but is proposed to increase to 48.5 cents per mile.
If the issue of veterans' medical care remains before the public, it will be easier to make other changes, such as enhancing care at outpatient facilities in rural areas, Walz said.
"We obviously have to do better," Pelosi said.
Jaeger, the only woman besides Pelosi participating in the roundtable discussion, told the speaker that veterans' medical facilities need to improve health services for female veterans. They not only may have medical needs as a result of combat service, but some also are subject to harassment or assault by male soldiers, Jaeger said. The Minneapolis facility does have a good program for women veterans, she added.
After touring the medical facility and talking to patients, Walz and Pelosi appeared at a news conference with other Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Jim Oberstar. But Walz said improving care to veterans is not a partisan issue.
"This is an issue that transcends politics," Walz said.