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Veterans urge Heritage Living Center to get VA-certified

Hubbard County Veterans Services Officer Jerry Bjerke presented a petition to Heritage Living Center Administrator Kurt Hansen encouraging the facility to get re-certified by the Veterans Administration (VA) for veterans care.

Several petitions have circulated over the last year or two, Bjerke said at Tuesday's Hubbard County Board meeting.

The 50 signatures are "just a small representation," he said. "There's a lot of support from local veterans and family members to see if we can get that certification completed."

Currently, Bjerke added, one Vietnam vet's family must drive 180 miles round trip to visit him at the closest VA-approved center, which is in Twin Lakes, Minn.

Hansen reminded county commissioners that "we made the decision 18 to 24 months ago that we would wait to pursue a veterans service contract until the building project was complete."

The second wing opened last October and phase three was being done, Hansen said. VA solicitation was closed temporarily, but as of late July, he learned "the window is open now for six months for us to pursue a VA contract like we used to have years ago."

Hansen said he's working on the paperwork and an informal "waiting list" of vets has begun.

"On behalf of the veterans of this county, we really appreciate your support on that," Bjerke said.

In the 1990s to 2000s, there were 130 skilled beds at Heritage, Hansen recalled. "We'd have upwards of three to four, at most, at a time. But then again, that was a different era — more World War II — so it'll be interesting to see how this will work."

Hansen anticipates have two to three beds available for vets. "But that's a start, and we can see where that might grow to. We're not by any means going to pick up all the demand."

Hansen said he was not aware of current statistics about Hubbard County veterans needs.

Paul Libbon, a regional director of operations for Ecumen, attended Tuesday's board meeting. Ecumen manages Heritage Community.

"About half of the Ecumen sites have veterans contracts and half do not, and it's all based on the need of the area they are in," Libbon said. "If there's a need, we support that and do those contracts.

County Commissioner Ed Smith said, "We're certainly going to see a need here, especially for the Vietnam people who deal with some pretty exotic diseases that were a product of Agent Orange and those kinds of things, and the mental health issues come along."

Smith noted that 10 percent of the county's population are veterans, "which to me is pretty huge."

"To strengthen your point," Bjerke added, "we are a retirement community as well, so a lot of our veterans are older."

"I am a Vietnam vet, too," Smith said. "We had difficulty coming home a long time ago and now we need to come home again."

According to Bjerke's latest report, his office assisted 14 World War II, 81 Korean, 559 Vietnam, 244 Southwest Asian and 490 "other" veterans and/or their families during the second quarter.

"We average 20 contacts per day," he said.

Hubbard County's veteran population was 2,012 in 2017, down 2.5 percent.