Innovative ideas brewing to house nearly 900 aging veterans


Since he was first elected to the House in 2006, Rep. John Ward (DFL-Baxter) has been working to get a veterans nursing home in Brainerd. And he’s not alone.

“That’s part of the problem,” he said. “There’s a need all over the state.”

With nearly 900 Minnesota veterans on waiting lists, several other communities, particularly in the Northwestern part of the state, are without a nearby veterans home.

A new select committee on veterans housing will be meeting over the interim, to look at alternative and cost-effective ways to help homeless and aging veterans find housing.

A 2009 study by the Department of Veterans Affairs ranked Brainerd, Little Falls and Crosby as the top three potential sites for a new veterans home. The department has also submitted federal funding applications for potential homes in Montevideo and Willmar.

In Bemidji, Rep. John Persell (DFL-Bemidji) has spoken up about a longtime need, too.

In his district, he said aging veterans are forced to move to homes hours away from loved ones.

“We have a very significant, greater distance to travel if we don’t have a home in the northwest part of the state,” he said.

While it’s been about 15 years since the last home was built, it may still be some time before funds are appropriated to build any of the requested homes. A last minute bonding bill passed by the Legislature Monday would appropriate $18.9 million in a state match to expand the Minneapolis Veterans Home, but includes no funding for other homes.

Instead, the House has appointed nine of its members to first-ever select committee on veterans housing. While meeting over the interim, the committee will be charged with looking at alternative and cost-effective ways to help homeless and aging veterans find housing. The committee is expected to submit a report by early next year.

Rep. Alice Hausman, who will be a member of the committee, said that the way new veterans homes are set up today is simply not working.

“(An architect working on a Veterans Affairs project) has suggested that kind of rigid connection to how we have always done things is perhaps contributing to higher costs for our construction than would need to be,” she said.

For example, the Minneapolis facility has already cost the state about $51 million for just 100 beds and still has a waiting period of 8-12 months. As a result, Hausman said Ramsey County Veterans Services spends a great deal of time finding veterans temporary housing.

State could take decentralized approach

Legislators are already coming up with a slew of possible alternatives.

Hausman said one solution could be partnering with nonprofits. She also wants to move away from a centralized approach and fund multiple smaller veterans homes across the state. She added that bigger organizations are often harder to manage.

“The smaller the unit, the better the outcome,” she said.

Since the federal government typically funds 65 percent of a facility’s construction, it’s a crucial first step, but also a major obstacle.

For the entire nation, Hausman said Congress has only budgeted $83 million. “How likely is it that Minnesota’s going to get the bulk of that?”

The state is also responsible for ongoing operating costs. The proposed 70-bed Bemidji home would cost the state at least $4.4 million annually, according to the nonpartisan fiscal staff.

Due to federal limits on the number of veterans nursing homes or bed capacities allowed in a state, it’s also likely that when one or two new homes are funded, they will be the last for a long time.

“That’s why this process has become very competitive and very intense,” Ward said.

Federal guidelines for veterans housing could need tweaking

Like Hausman, Ward also believes cost-effective alternatives are out there.

Noting empty beds in private nursing homes in Bemidji and Brainerd, he said adding a veterans wing to a private nursing home is one idea.

Since part of the reason empty beds in nursing homes exist may be because of a growing number of senior citizens receiving care at home, providing funding to veterans for at-care home treatment may be another solution too, Hausman said.

But the question of whether the federal government will fund those ideas is still under scrutiny.

“If there are federal rules or laws that have to be changed, we should engage the federal delegation to say, ‘You got to help us change this,’” she said.

Because of veterans’ specific conditions can require a high level of care, a separate facility for them is crucial, Persell said.

It’s a need he believes will continue to exist well into the future.

“Unless we figure out how not to do war … these veterans homes will have a use,” he said.