Sen. Franken addresses health care concerns of Austin vets
AUSTIN — Sen. Al Franken spent Veterans Day traveling southeastern Minnesota's back roads in an attempt to hear from local vets. While the turnout was small — only a handful showed up at his two stops in Austin — many raised concerns over health care.
Rollie Hanson, Austin's American Legion commander, helped coordinate Franken's visit to Austin. While awaiting the senator's contingent to arrive from New Richland-H-E-G High School, Hanson said he hoped Franken, a Democrat, would provide some "answers for comfort" among local vets.
"We want to know what's really going on," said Hanson, a Vietnam vet.
When Franken arrived, he engaged the locals in brief small talk before launching into an explanation of his latest bill aimed at improving the welfare of rural veterans who don't have access to better equipped metro Veterans Affairs clinics. Franken's bipartisan bill, called the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, has five major objectives:
• Recruit/retain health care personnel in rural areas.
• Ensure timely and quality care in rural areas through contract and fee-basis providers.
• Increased use of telemedicine in rural areas.
• Ensure effective use of VA's mobile outpatient clinics.
• Modify the funding mechanism so that funds "actually go to initiatives and projects that improve access to and quality of care for rural veterans."
Rural veterans make up more than 40 percent of vets enrolled in the VA system, according to a Franken press release.
"Veterans living in rural communities across Minnesota have told me they run into many roadblocks when it comes to getting quality health care services," Franken said. "I'm pushing the VA to improve access to health care for veterans living in rural communities. I hope we can come together to pass this bipartisan legislation and do right by those who have served our nation."
While the crowd expressed thanks for Franken's ongoing efforts, one of Austin's most well known veterans challenged him on a related issue.
Norm Hecimovich, a decorated veteran of Korea, Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, questioned why Albert Lea was chosen over Austin just last week for the state's newest VA clinic. More specifically, he felt the decision was swayed by Freeborn County and the Albert Lea City Council committing $50,000 apiece to the project — something he says shouldn't have been allowed.
"It's not really sour grapes, but it is in a way because they didn't follow the criteria they set," Hecimovich said of the decision announced Friday by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
Hecimovich, who says the Hormel Foundation was willing to front a similar amount at the appropriate time, was late to Franken's first stop at the Austin American Legion, but was able to speak to him an hour later at the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
"Let's look into this," Franken told an aide after Hecimovich explained the situation.
Valor Healthcare was awarded a $28.2 million, five-year contract to operate the 11,000-square-foot Albert Lea clinic and a similar facility in Shakopee. The Albert Lea site is expected to serve up to 3,000 veterans annually when it opens in 2014. Many of those veterans currently commute to the clinic in Rochester.