Vets bring concerns to town hall meeting

MARSHALL – Help is out there, but it’s not always easy to find, area veterans said.

That was part of the reason behind a Veterans’ Town Hall meeting Thursday night in Marshall. Area vets brought questions and concerns – mainly about health care and access to benefits – to representatives of the Sioux Falls VA health care system and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Speakers answered questions but often acknowledged that the military benefits system was complex.

More than 50 people attended the town hall meeting. The event was organized with support from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and the Lyon County Veterans Services Office.

Patrick Kelly, director of the Sioux Falls VA health care system, spoke about recent updates to services and programs offered through the Sioux Falls VA. The system is working to offer more health care for women veterans, improve patient experiences and update facilities at the Sioux Falls VA hospital. Kelly said the Sioux Falls VA system is also committed to ending homelessness among veterans.

There are some significant challenges the VA faces in caring for veterans in rural areas, Kelly said. Providing mental health services is one.

“There are not enough mental health care providers to go around,” he said, even with an increase in providers the past four years. The use of “tele-health” services for communicating with mental health care providers is growing in the region, Kelly said.

In-home primary care services can also help reach vets living in more isolated areas, Kelly said.

In a question-and-answer session, several area residents voiced concerns about health benefits or filing disability claims. One audience member asked whether the VA system tries to reduce the amount of disability benefits claimed by veterans.

“It is not the practice or policy in Sioux Falls, or nationally,” Kelly said.

Another audience member asked how it was determined which veterans were eligible to claim disability benefits. It seemed harder for some younger veterans, he said.

Kelly said there are a variety of factors that are used to determine eligibility. Veterans who served in different conflicts could have different eligibility requirements, among other factors.

“Benefits are very, very complex,” he said. Kelly said there can also be problems with disability claims being delayed. However, he said a delayed claim shouldn’t affect access to VA healthcare for a veteran who served “on the ground.”

Questions about help for job-seeking veterans were also brought up at the meeting. Dick Joerg, a veterans employment representative in south central and southwest Minnesota, talked about some of the resources available through the Minnesota Workforce Center.

The Workforce Center offers a range of programs to help Minnesotans build job skills, prepare resumes and find work, Joerg said. Some programs are geared specifically toward veterans. For example, the Minnesota Works online job bank allows potential employers to indicate that they’re “veteran-friendly” or looking to hire a military veteran. Job-seekers can also indicate that they are veterans on their posted resumes.

“It’s the number one place we’re trying to get employers and veterans connected,” Joerg said.

Joerg said there are also resources available for veterans who are interested in starting their own business.

Some of the questions asked Thursday night focused on the future of veterans’ services. One audience member asked if the Minnesota Legislature might reduce support for veterans’ health care.

Kelly said the VA health care system is federally funded and would not be affected by state governments.

“It’s actually very well-funded,” he said, and overall, state governments also tend to maintain support for vets.

“Will it always be that way? I don’t know,” Kelly said.

Lyon County VSO Terry Wing said organizers were pleased with the turnout Thursday night. If possible, it would be good to make the town hall meeting a recurring event, he said.

Veterans who attended the town hall meeting were asked to fill out surveys on their concerns. Wing said the results of the survey will be published in the future.