Minnesota has five state veterans' homes housing 850 residents, located in Silver Bay, Fergus Falls, Luverne, Hastings and Minneapolis. In the last legislative session, $32 million was set aside to meet the state's required portion of a building request for three additional 72-bed veterans' homes in Montevideo, Preston and Bemidji. The Veterans Administration (VA) would be responsible for the remaining two-thirds of the construction costs.

The VA has strict prioritization criteria that must be met before federal funding is provided. The requested homes would be at the bottom of the priority list, and it is very doubtful that they would be approved for VA funding before the $32 million in state bond authorization expires.

Legislators representing these three communities pushed last session to have homes built in their areas, without regard for the current and future needs of our veterans. That portion of the bonding bill moved forward with little discussion, partly because legislators hesitate to question anything relating to veterans.

To examine the need for additional homes and skilled nursing beds, we need to look at where the 177,000 Minnesota veterans over the age of 65 live and how many of them will need skilled nursing services. Over the next 20 years, our veteran population will decline nearly 50 percent. This downward trend will continue for the foreseeable future.

Montevideo is located in Chippewa County, which has a total of 857 veterans. The Minneapolis Veterans Home is in Hennepin County, with a veteran population of over 59,000 and a facility housing 350 of them.

The catchment area for a Montevideo home would include the counties of Chippewa, Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, Yellow Medicine, Lac qui Parle, Big Stone and Swift, which comprise an estimated 5 percent of the state's veteran population. The veteran catchment area for the Minneapolis Veterans Home represents nearly 60 percent of the statewide veteran population. Although the Preston and Bemidji catchment areas are somewhat larger than Montevideo's, they each are still at least 10 times smaller than the Minneapolis catchment area. Additionally, because only Minnesota veterans can enter Minnesota veterans' homes, both Montevideo and Preston are too close to bordering states to serve a sufficiently large number of the total veteran community.

In moving this legislation forward so quickly, consideration was not given to the impact the new homes would have on existing greater Minnesota homes. The catchment areas for Montevideo, Preston and Bemidji would dramatically affect the catchment areas for the homes in Silver Bay, Fergus Falls and Luverne, with the result that none of the homes, existing or planned, would be at full capacity in the near future and would see less than half capacity in 20 years.

Currently, the Minneapolis home has an empty 100-bed skilled nursing facility. This year, veterans housed in that building were transferred to the new 100-bed facility recently constructed on campus. In 2009, it was understood by those of us in the Legislature that the new facility would be used to reduce the significant waiting list for veterans wanting to enter the Minneapolis home. However, by transferring veterans from one home to the other, the total number of veterans receiving on-campus care remained constant.

No one questions the obligation to provide for veterans who have sacrificed for our country. It is time, however, to pause and give serious thought as to how and where we will care for those veterans, without regard for legislative districts. Rather than move ahead with a request to the VA to provide the funding for three new homes, the new administration should create a committee tasked with looking at current and future needs for veterans' homes and, if it is determined that new homes are needed, where they should be located.

The committee should also examine alternatives, such as private home care as well as using existing outstate nursing homes that have been closing in record numbers.

At the very least, the empty Minneapolis facility should be immediately filled by veterans on the Minneapolis home waiting list. Finally, the $32 million in bonding funds reserved for the three new homes, which could be tied up for years, should be used now for needed improvements to Minnesota's deteriorating infrastructure.

Jerry Newton, DFL-Coon Rapids, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.