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Funding for Willmar veterans home included in House bonding bill

WILLMAR -- Funding for a 90-bed veterans specialized mental health nursing home in Willmar is included in a $200 million House supplemental bonding bill.

The bill was introduced late Monday, is expected to pass through committees this week and get final approval in the House next Monday, according to Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar.

The bill includes $5 million in state bonding for the proposed $21 million project. Federal and local funds would also be needed. Juhnke said he doesn't want the project to die this year. It was included in the House bonding bill in 2008 but not in the Senate bill.

That scenario is repeating itself this year.

The Senate has already passed a $367 million public works supplemental spending bill, but the bill does not include funding for the Willmar veterans home.

Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, said he's not optimistic the Willmar project will be added.

Gimse said he's received a letter from Gov. Tim Pawlenty that the spending bill needs to be trimmed.

"These types of projects don't have much hope this year," Gimse said. "I don't see any of the veterans proposals moving on the Senate side at this point in time."

Juhnke said he hopes Gimse will "put in a good word" with the governor to get the Willmar project included when the House and Senate bonding bills go to conference committee.

Gimse said he will continue to talk to committee chairmen about the veterans home but said the indications he's received from the governor's office are that the Senate bonding bill will be pared down.

"It would be nice if we had enough money to do all these projects and it'd be a good project for us," Gimse said. But he said he is "not real optimistic" for immediate funding for the facility.

It may have a better chance next year, Gimse said, when the Legislature takes up its major bonding bill.

If the proposal gets bonding approval, it would move to the top of the federal funding list, said Juhnke, and would require lobbying efforts of Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Collin Peterson to get final federal approval for 65 percent of construction cost. About $3 million in local funding would also be needed.

In case the project does not make it into the final bonding package this year, Juhnke has "plan B" in place.

He's also introduced the project in the omnibus veterans affairs bill. That committee is expected to take action next week. If it passes there, it would not access bonding money but would rely strictly on state money.

Juhnke said the state has delayed this project for too long and veterans' needs are left unmet.

The proposal for a veterans home in Willmar is not for a "standard" nursing home for veterans, Juhnke said. It would provide specialized geriatric care for veterans with severe mental illness.

The facility would also provide inpatient care for veterans with traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and those with dual diagnosis of mental illness and chemical dependency. Research on long-term traumatic brain injury could also be conducted at the facility.

With veterans returning from war with head injuries and increased suicide rates, combined with Vietnam veterans that are reaching retirement age, Juhnke said this kind of facility is long overdue. "We're preparing for what we know is already out there, and we know we lack the medical facilities and care."

Juhnke is also encouraging the state to seek public/private partnerships with entities such as Lutheran Social Service or Project Turnabout to provide some of those services.

The history Willmar has of providing mental health care, and the well-trained staff available here, makes this a good fit for the project, Juhnke said.

He said the nursing home could be a model for the rest of the country to follow for veterans care.

Other communities, including Montevideo, are also seeking funding for a traditional veterans nursing home that is expected to be addressed in the main bonding bill next year.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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