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Jennifer Johnson and Austin Ashlock, Published July 14 2013

VA to help rural veterans reach clinics

GRAND FORKS – A new initiative by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs may make it easier for veterans in rural areas to get medical services.

The department an-nounced Thursday it will provide grants to state veteran service agencies and organizations to help give free transportation for rural veterans to VA medical centers and facilities providing VA care.

James Hancock, chief of staff at the Fargo VA Medical Center, said the current transportation provided by state veteran services is sufficient, but improvements can always be made.

“This will hopefully expand the opportunities for veteran service organizations,” he said. “This way they can have extra money to purchase vehicles and gather volunteers to drive.”

The initiative will be providing veterans services around the country with grants ranging up to $50,000.

Current services in the Red River Valley take veterans to and from the Fargo VA Medical Center.

According to Lou Lombardi, veteran service officer for Grand Forks County, two vans run to Grand Forks once or twice each week, on their way to Fargo. One van comes from Pembina, making five stops including Grand Forks, and one van comes from Stanley, making seven stops including Grand Forks.

However, some areas of North Dakota are not as fortunate.

“In some of the areas, it is bad and they don’t have any access at all,” he said, referring to the western part of the state.

Hancock said North Dakota’s rural communities have raised issues when it comes to transporting veterans around the state.

“It’s something that we have always struggled with,” he said. “But if veteran services get these extra dollars, we will certainly have the resources needed to fix that.”

While issues may arise, he said he has never gotten any complaints from veterans over transportation.

“People aren’t missing appointments over any of this,” he said. “It’s certainly a good idea to have these community-based centers, but obviously we can’t have one in every town.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she is “really excited” about the new initiative, but, in true North Dakota fashion, the state has already started to address some of the concerns.

Clinics are already using telemedicine to diagnose patients remotely and bridge the physical gap to medical access. The Grafton clinic in particular pioneered the method, but Heitkamp said the clinic is too small.

Her concerns extend beyond transportation to overall medical services, including looking at better ways to deliver mental health services, given the growing rate of post-traumatic stress, she said.

The senator spent this past week visiting veterans and touring some of the seven outpatient clinics across the state.

She said veterans in eastern North Dakota had fewer complaints about transportation. “But certainly, when you live in Minot and even Devils Lake, there’s a great deal of concern about doing more fee-based services.”

Depending on the type of medical procedure required, older veterans in particular have concerns about driving to the Fargo facility. In the southwest part of the state, veterans would rather visit the clinic at Fort Meade, S.D., because it’s closer than the one in Fargo, she said.

“If you’re 85 years old and undergoing chemotherapy, you might not want to get on a bus if you live in Stanley,” she said.