Veterans may face big cuts

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Local veterans could feel a pinch if the Senate and House approve $10.2 million in cuts found in the government omnibus bills.

Norm Hecimovich, member of the local Veterans’ Memorial Committee, said the cuts would affect Austin-area vets “indirectly,” but would still be tough to bear.

“It’s going to affect all veterans because they’re cutting the Veterans administration, which Administers all the funding for the hospitals and rest homes,” Hecimovich said. “We have a lot of people going to the veterans’ hospital.”

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Although Austin doesn’t have its own veterans hospital, Mower County has produced more than 3,000 veterans — many of whom are in a rest home or use hospital services in other areas of the state. If these areas are cut, Mower County vets in need of medical care may face some roadblocks.

Commissioner of Veterans Affairs Larry Shellito said in a press release that in a worst case scenario, the $10.2 million cut could result in closure of a veterans rest home, closure of a programs and services division or burial fee increases at the State Veterans Cemetery. Cuts could also cause the Bronze Star Marker program to be eliminated.

Rep. Rich Murray, R-Albert Lea, assured the public that veterans will not sustain significant cuts.

“That’s not happening,” he said.

If the cuts are implemented, though, Hecimovich’s main concern is where veterans in rest homes would be relocated if a home is forced to close.

“We don’t have many (homes) in Minnesota, but the ones we have are loaded to the max,” Hecimovich said. “They don’t have any extra space.”

“These are people who served our country honorably and need service. I think we need to take care of them,” he added.

If there’s one group being taken care of at the Legislature, Murray said it’s veterans.

“That’s one group that people are watching out for,” he said. “They deserve to be taken care of.”

Hecimovich understands that cuts need to be made to most, if not all, government departments, but he said closing a veterans rest home would only force veterans into other rest homes and hospitals that are also struggling with funding and overcrowding issues.

“We’ve got soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan still,” he said. “If someone gets injured and ends up needing to be in the hospital or at a facility, where do you put them?”

On top of the $10.2 million slash, the House bill calls for a 15 percent workforce reduction by 2015, which would require an additional reduction of $2.6 million to veterans affairs.

“If they have to make that cut and they do it very systematically, we would probably concur,” Hecimovich said of the 15 percent workforce reduction. “I don’t think they can do that because I don’t think they have any extra people right now to cut.”

“And one thing about cuts — they’re never restored. I don’t think veterans should be the highest priority for cuts,” he added.

Murray said members of the House and Senate will likely be meeting to discuss the omnibus bill again soon.