Rick Stoehr - Commander
Julie Stoehr - President
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States
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Town Hall Meeting

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Town Hall Meeting 01-11-14

At the October District 8 Meeting in Deer River a Steering Committee was formed to explore the possibility of inviting Staff Representatives from the offices of Senators Klobuchar and Franken as well as Congressman Nolan to a Town Hall Meeting hosted by District 8. The purpose for this meeting was to give all District 8 Post Commanders or their designated representative’s direct access to these Staff members to address the concerns and questions from the members of their respective Posts. We also extended the invitation to Representatives from the DAV, American Legion as well as CVSO’s from within District 8 to participate as well. The questions from those planning to attend were we requested in advance and forwarded to allow Staff Representatives as much time as possible to research those questions as needed, to enable them to relay accurate information.

We achieved a total of 28 participants from the various groups invited.

The 2013 Community Based Outpatient Clinic or CBOC as they are commonly referred to, that moved from Cook to a new facility in Ely started our discussion. Investigation into the reason for that move led to the conclusion that more Veterans from the Ely area have made use of the Cook Clinic than anywhere else in the “catchment” area, at least that’s the reason we got back from the VA. As a point of information: The numbers supplied by The VA are as follows. Of the 2299 Veterans utilizing the Cook Clinic in 2012, 37% lived with 60 miles of Cook while 63% lived within 60 miles of Ely. The geographical location of Ely versus that of Cook makes these figures questionable. A map with a circle indicating a 60 mile radius of Ely puts a great portion of that circle into Canada as well as Lake Superior as opposed to one drawn similarly around Cook is a good enough reason in itself to question those findings.

The way contracts are let was also discussed so the group as a whole understood the process. The explanation in its simplest form is that competing health care groups, “contractors”, submit bids with the lowest bidder receiving the contact. It’s the system that’s used almost universally by the Government or any other public or private group looking to outsource services or goods.

However in the realization that utilizing this process may save money up front, the reality of it all is that the low bid by the contractor may not be providing adequate health care for the patients it’s supposed to serve. The fact is these contractors are in business to make a profit, first and foremost, as are all businesses. So it’s reasonable to assume that the money provided by the VA, now at a lower dollar amount will be divided up with that provider taking money as profit and the remainder of the those funds then used to cover expenses for the actual care needed by those Veterans in the area served by that contact. Certainly there are other considerations but at the end of the day it’s the actual dollars used directly for services to the Veterans is the important consideration for us.

The discussion then lead to the quality of that care. There has been more than a little dissatisfaction with the service being provided even with consideration given to the fact that the Ely Clinic needed time to come up to speed. As to the main CBOC in Hibbing from all indications there is for lack of a better term a disaster in the works. Numerous complains were aired and duly noted. It appears that the Ely Clinic has made improvements but the Hibbing situation by all indications continues to deteriorate.

In order to further research and continue the discussion on the CBOC on a later date a decision to request a copy of the contract awarded the provider will be obtained to allow us to see exactly what that contact details and to allow us to insure that the conditions within it are being complied with.

The next order of business was a discussion on a specific question brought forth by one of the participants on the status of a specific bill, Senate Bill # S1602, the Toxic Exposure Recovery and Military Family Act of 2013. It’s apparent that Agent Orange as well as other exposure issues continues to effect not only the Veterans actually exposed but there is compelling evidence that second, third and even fourth generations are being effected by that exposure.

The next topic for discussion was the current trend towards modifying Military pensions prompted by a question as to the content and clarification of Senate Amendment HJ Res. 59, Continuing Appropriations Resolution of 2014. The concern was over what it actually would be doing to those pensions with the appearance of making major reductions in benefits to current retirees. As explained it should have no effect on current recipients but will affect career Military families of the future creating a two tier system similar to that being promoted in private industry. With that a discussion as to the issue of retention of those future enlistees and their incentive to make the Military a career was held.

We concluded with a presentation from one of the Town Hall Steering Committee members with an overview of pending legislation on both the state and federal levels on rural Veterans health care and the ability to utilize that health care system. The comparison given as to the ease of access between that of our metropolitan Comrades and those of us who are rural was best illustrated with the following challenge offered up by him to any politician or bureaucrat involved with our health care:

“I would like for you to join me in Big Fork the night before my visit to the VA Hospital at Fort Snelling. You can stay right here with me, in my home. I’ll buy you dinner; I’ll even buy you a drink or two. But we can’t stay up too late because we need to get up early to leave at 2 AM and drive to Grand Rapids (1 hr & 14 min. 53 miles) and join up with other the Vets to catch the van that’s waiting there getting underway from Grand Rapids at 4 AM. The van will take us to Fort Snelling for the 20 minute test that I’m required to have done there. Never mind that we have a fully functioning and capable hospital right here in Big Fork. Or Grand Rapids for that matter.

Some of these guys have other issues far more severe that mine. Some are in need of assistance to get in and out of the van. We’ll lend a hand and give the brother what he needs.

The 196 mile van ride to Ft Snelling will take about 3 hours and 45 minutes if all goes well and nobody needs to stop. We need to get there early, we were lucky enough to get early appointments this time. That’s not always the case.

And now our real day begins, the purpose for all of this. We get to wait for not only my turn to be seen, but we need to wait for our Comrades to take their turn as well. When do we get to head back north? Good question. There could be unforeseen delays.

But you all remember the drill, hurry up and wait.

OK! Everybody’s good to go, we can finally head back home. It’s 2 PM and I’m looking at a 5 hour trip home IF I’m lucky, minimum. That’ll put me at home around 7PM good Lord willing. No extra stops. But we gotta eat sometime. So….

But now put yourself in the shoes of one of our own who’s in his 80’s and maybe relies on a wheelchair and sometimes a Buddy for mobility and others to spend his days in his own home..”

I’ve taken some liberty with this narrative but I think you can understand the situation.

The consensus was the system currently in place makes no sense. We need to pursue what’s commonly referred to as ‘fee based’ Veterans health care which would allow for contracting directly with home town hospitals and clinics for basic health care. Quality of care issues, ease of access and cost effectiveness can all be addressed on a local level.

We in the 8th District will continue to study and monitor the rural Veterans health care issue as well as other Veteran’s issues as the need arises. Future District 8 meetings are being discussed to keep the momentum up on the state and federal levels as well as keeping our elected officials aware of the fact that we have expectations of them. We will also continue to build on the relationships and involvement by other Veteran’s organizations including and especially our CVSO’s within the District if we are to succeed. Our County Veterans Service Officers are our front line when it comes to recognizing and dealing with Veteran’s issues and their input is essential to correcting that of which needs to be corrected. We would appreciate any assistance we could receive from our metropolitan Comrades with this issue.

Veterans need to be directly involved with the discussion and take an active role in developing programs that affect our wellbeing. We would encourage our Comrades across the State to do what is necessary to open up direct lines with those who have what it takes within their Districts to bring our issues front and center.
Steering Committee members are: Committee Chairman - Rick Stoehr, Legislative Officer - Jack Lund, Judge Advocate - Tom Moors, and Past 8th District Commander - Mick Thompson. 
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