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Program expands services to veterans, military families in rural areas of Minnesota

WILLMAR -- A new program that expands services to Minnesota veterans and their families has been launched in rural Minnesota.

It brings case management, outreach and followup to veterans and military families to help them deal with issues ranging from depression to family dynamics to money management, and to do so close to home.

"It's really needed," said Trisha Appeldorn, veterans service officer for Kandiyohi County.

It has long been recognized that members of the military and their families often need increased social services and that they frequently struggle with multiple issues. But service providers have been hamstrung by not having a single place to refer veterans -- and what's more, military spouses and children generally haven't been eligible for services.

Veterans also have been underserved in rural Minnesota, where resources often are spread out and difficult to coordinate.

The new program, known as Minnesota Service CORE, or Case Management, Outreach, Referral and Education, was signed into law last year as part of Gov. Tim Pawlenty's military and veterans support package. The Legislature approved a $500,000 start-up appropriation.

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota has been selected as the contractor. Once a veteran or family member has been referred for help, Lutheran Social Service will assign a case manager and coordinate the local resources and referrals.

Since the program officially began in November, 40 to 50 cases have been referred through either county veterans service offices or the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans and their families can call the toll-free line, 1-888-LINKVET (1-888-546-5838) or their county veterans service office to be connected to the services closest to where they live.

Appeldorn said she has made 10 referrals already.

Veterans and their families don't even have to leave their home to see a case manager, she said. "They'll go to your house. It's just a really great program."

The program is open to veterans and military families of all eras -- from World War II to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and peacetime service, she emphasized.

In the past, veterans might have had to wait a month and sometimes even longer to receive services, Appeldorn said.

The new program is expected to significantly shorten this waiting time, she said. "They're getting seen sooner."

With Lutheran Social Service field offices in at least nine rural Minnesota cities, including Willmar, services also will be more accessible.

To ensure that veterans and family members don't fall through the cracks, case workers will report back to veterans service officers to let them know whether the client showed up for an appointment after being referred.

"This way we'll know they are getting the service," Appeldorn said.

She especially likes the additional services that will now be available -- for instance, money management.

Problems with money aren't uncommon when soldiers return to civilian life, she said. "It's nice to know that they're going to get some financial counseling."

State officials believe Minnesota Service CORE could become a national model for serving America's military families. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is looking at establishing a similar program at the federal level.

The program's one limitation is its funding. The $500,000 initial allocation has helped get it launched, but once the funding runs out, the program will shut down until the fund can be replenished.

In the meantime, third-party billing will be used to help recoup some of the costs -- but there will be no direct costs to veterans and their families in the form of deductibles or copayments. Free community-based services also will be tapped into in order to maximize the program's resources.