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VA officials hold forum to address veterans issues

By Jean Ruzicka

Representatives from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office and the legislative director from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs stopped by Park Rapids Thursday morning to offer assistance and updates for veterans and families, Klobuchar making an appearance via video.

“I’m the first point of contact,” Veterans Service Officer Greg Remus said of his Hubbard County constituency. “Then I use them and abuse them,” he joked of calling on the trio of veterans advocates for assistance.

The Washington, D.C. office focus is on legislation. It’s policy-oriented, Greg Swanholm, Klobuchar’s outreach director, explained. The state offices work as advocates to assist people navigate the complexities of federal agencies.

Klobuchar’s constituent advocate, Rachel Newman, said her office has seen “astounding success” in assisting people with the VA health care systems. Some have problems with records.

In other instances, they may ask for a reissuance of a Purple Heart that’s been lost or stolen. Corrections of records have been requested.

One of the recent “big wins” was awarding a medal - at last - to a soldier who’d been a World War II prisoner.

Another was reinstatement of benefits to a veteran whose payments were inexplicably decreased.

These services are in accord with Klobuchar’s stated priorities: “One of my most important duties as your United States Senator is to assist Minnesotans who are facing issues with federal agencies.”

“Call us,” Newman said (1-888-224-9043). “We’re happy to discuss problems.”

Mike McElhiney, legislative director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that although they faced some hurdles and stalemates at the capital, “2015 was a good session for veterans. The legislature and governor came through.”

The finance bill appropriates $143 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs for the biennium.

New this year is a provision requesting a review of the financial management of Minnesota veterans’ homes.

McElhiney reviewed the five veterans’ homes in Minnesota, including facilities in Hastings, Fergus Falls, Luverne, Minneapolis and Silver Bay.

He noted the Women Veteran Program was re-launched last year. A Tribal Veterans Service Officer works to help American Indian veterans apply for benefits. A veterans’ cemetery is at Camp Ripley with a second under construction in Preston, a third considered for Duluth and possibly Redwood Falls.

The Linkage Line (LinkVet) offers direct access to resources available to answer questions regarding programs and services (1-888-546-5838).

For more information on services, visit the recently redesigned website, MinnesotaVeteran.org.

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