Local view: Are we failing our veterans’ health needs? Not in the Northland, where care is good
A few years ago, after returning from a tour of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay, I described what I saw to my wife; then I flippantly remarked, "When I get old and useless, you can call them and have me sent there." Without missing a be...
A few years ago, after returning from a tour of the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay, I described what I saw to my wife; then I flippantly remarked, “When I get old and useless, you can call them and have me sent there.” Without missing a beat, my wife replied, “What’s the phone number?”
My wife’s snarkiness notwithstanding, I was sincere in my remark. After several visits to the home over the years, I have gained complete confidence in its care for veterans and, for some, their spouses. In stark contrast to the many negative news reports about veterans facilities elsewhere in the country, it seems every time I have visited the Silver Bay facility, something was going on: physical changes, policy changes, progressive attempts to cater to the needs of the residents and more.
Structurally, it’s a vastly improved facility, according to Gwen Bacon, social worker at the home. A major remodeling project just wrapped up that took the home from having one central dining area to four different dining areas in smaller units called households, which include separate living rooms shared by residents. Bacon said that breaking the 83-bed facility into smaller areas gave the facility a more home-like setting to aid in the development of relationships between residents and staff.
Relationships. It’s one thing to change the physical appearance of a facility; it’s another to maintain a good relationship among staff and residents. I will always remember a veteran there named Pete. For years, if not decades, he was bedridden, on his back, a condition I don’t think I could ever tolerate. But this old Slavic veteran took it in stride and was always smiling when I saw him. I’m sure most of it was his optimistic stoicism, but I’m sure it also had to do with the care he received from the staff at the veterans home, right up until he passed away a few years ago.
Bacon summed up the kind of care Pete and others receive: “Staff (members) are trained in specific strategies to assist veterans to maintain meaningful relationships and quality of life. … The staff (members at) the home are committed to continually exploring available resources and improving existing programs to provide the best care possible to veterans and their families. We’re there for them.”
That’s true. It’s also true with the Twin Ports Veterans Administration Clinic in Superior. It’s one of 13 community-based outpatient clinics managed by Dr. Clyde Markon of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. He was the clinic’s director for a number of years, including during the time it was rumored to be closed. Hundreds of veterans came out in support of the clinic. Why? Because they knew firsthand the Twin Ports clinic provided exemplary service.
Statistics from 2013 confirm the need for the clinic: There were almost 30,000 outpatient and more than 6,000 unique patient treatments during that year.
Still, at the time, Markon told me accommodating the needs of veterans needed to be improved. Why, Markon asked, should a Korean War veteran have to go all the way to Minneapolis for a simple colonoscopy? At the time, we discussed options, like bringing up specialists from Minneapolis periodically, providing more fee-basis coverage (veterans getting care at private clinics on the VA dime), or using technology. Fully funding the VA at an appropriate budget level was beyond our pay grade, so it was a matter of making do with what one had.
In my opinion, Markon and the 70-plus employees at the Twin Ports clinic have more than made do. The renovated clinic has expanded its services and keeps up with demand, which has increased over the past decade. Markon cites the use of a tech service called V-Tell, which allows veterans to access medical resources nationwide, eliminating the need for that long drive to Minneapolis.
The VA has been pummeled over the last few months. The finger-pointing has pointed to, rightfully, some areas that needed attention. But I think scoring political points over it is unfair. The VA is no different from any other public or private bureaucratic entity. It’s no different from the military health care system with which I dealt. It’s not perfect. I urge Congress to stop complaining about the VA and do its job in better funding it.
I also urge readers to recognize the work people are doing on behalf of veterans: doctors like Clyde Markon, social workers like Gwen Bacon, and all the other people at the Twin Ports clinic and Silver Bay Veterans Home. I can’t speak for all veterans facilities, but I personally know these two are performing outstandingly.
Forget the politics. Forget the scandals. Remember our veterans, like Pete, and remember the dedicated people who are serving them. I’m not that old and useless to know they are doing a damn good job.
Dave Boe is a veteran and writer who lives in Duluth.