May 25 2016
Senator Has Long Fought to Expand Veteran Counseling Services in Grand Forks, Including Amendment to Spending Bill Last Week to Pave Way for Vet Center
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Securing a major victory for North Dakota veterans, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today announced that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has responded to her call for a Vet Center in Grand Forks by agreeing to bring a five-day Vet Center to Grand Forks on a six-month trial basis.
VA is working to locate operating space in Grand Forks to begin five-day operations as early as next week. Around 20 veterans a week currently use Grand Forks Vet Center services, which right now are available only one day a week. If use of Vet Center services doesn’t increase after the Vet Center increases to five days a week, VA will reassess need in Grand Forks and surrounding community.
Heitkamp began her push to bring a Vet Center to Grand Forks after hearing from veterans in the city and surrounding rural communities about the unmet need for mental health and counseling services in the region. North Dakota has lost more post-9/11 servicemembers to suicide than combat, and it’s Heitkamp’s hope that a Grand Forks Vet Center will help alleviate readjustment and mental health challenges returning veterans face.
“After working hard to pave the way for a Vet Center in Grand Forks, I’m overjoyed that VA has agreed to my request,” said Heitkamp. “It was no secret that I had Grand Forks in mind when I helped secure funding for new Vet Centers in the spending bill that Congress passed last year. Our veterans put it all on the line to protect us, and I fight every day to guarantee they have the services they need and deserve. Now we need to make sure veterans in the area know that readjustment and psychological counseling services will be available five days a week in Grand Forks, so we can demonstrate to VA that Vet Center offerings veterans have earned are needed in the community.”
Heitkamp received the good news about a Vet Center coming to Grand Forks from VA Under Secretary David Shulkin. Since last year, Heitkamp has been pressuring Shulkin and VA Secretary Robert McDonald to bring a much-needed Vet Center to Grand Forks.
Heitkamp’s most recent work to pave the way for a Grand Forks Vet Center was last week, when the U.S. Senate agreed unanimously to include her bipartisan legislation to strengthen the case for a Grand Forks Vet Center in a spending bill passed on Thursday. Specifically, her legislation requires better coordination between the VA’s Readjustment Counseling Service and the Office of Rural Health to make sure veterans in rural areas can access the support they need, which is often difficult to come by in small towns or remote regions.
The bipartisan year-end spending bill Congress passed in December, which Heitkamp supported, included $258 million for Readjustment Counseling Services – $15 million above the requested level. The increased funds are directed towards Vet Centers to address unmet mental health needs of veterans in rural and very rural areas like North Dakota, and Heitkamp has consistently pushed for VA to use those funds in Grand Forks.
Vet Centers help veterans readjust to civilian life by providing free counseling, screening, and referral services while removing the stigma of seeking mental health care. In North Dakota, the VA currently maintains Vet Centers in Fargo, Bismarck, and Minot. Expanding access in Grand Forks from one day a week to five – as Heitkamp has long called for – will dramatically improve counseling services for veterans and servicemembers.
Transitioning servicemembers often cluster around military bases after concluding their military service – and in North Dakota, the majority of the state’s more than 7,000 post-9/11 veterans have settled near U.S. Air Force bases in Minot and Grand Forks. With over 3,500 residents of Grand Forks or nearby counties deploying overseas since 9/11, many more combat veterans eligible to receive Vet Center services will settle in the Grand Forks region in years to come.
Heitkamp has worked to stand up for North Dakota veterans by:
- Pressing VA Secretary for better care: In November 2015, Heitkamp pressed VA Secretary Robert McDonald for a Grand Forks Vet Center to help address the mental and physical health challenges many newly returning veterans experience. The next month, Heitkamp pushed McDonald to visit North Dakota to see the challenges rural veterans face. In February, Heitkamp pressed VA Under Secretary Shulkin on the immediate need for a Vet Center in Grand Forks.
- Helping newly returning veterans readjust to civilian life: Heitkamp has long pressed for policies that connect new veterans with services they need to readjust to civilian life. Last summer, Heitkamp reintroduced her bipartisan Connect with Veterans Act to address challenges newly returning veterans in North Dakota face in attaining employment opportunities, education assistance, and health care.
- Strengthening resources for mental health support: The bipartisan year-end spending bill Congress passed in December, which Heitkamp supported, included $258 million for Readjustment Counseling Services, which is $15 million above the requested level. The increased funds are directed toward Vet Centers to address unmet mental health needs of veterans in rural areas like North Dakota.