In the maze of corridors and offices at the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, veterans can find help with everything from addiction recovery and mental health treatment to dental care or finding a new pair of glasses.
But to Gov. Tim Walz and health care system Director Patrick Kelly, that doesn't go far enough.
"That is inadequate. You know, it is not enough just to provide good health care when veterans come to the Minneapolis VA," Kelly said Wednesday as he stood in the hospital's atrium, flanked by Walz and Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Larry Herke.
Looking to expand services, Walz kicked off a four-day tour focused on veterans' issues by discussing suicide prevention at the hospital.
Of the estimated 20 veterans who commit suicide every day in the United States, 14 are not getting care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Kelly said. He said the Minnesota branch of the agency is going to work more closely with the Walz administration to look beyond the hospital and the VA's network of clinics to get services to those in need.
The governor served in the National Guard and is a former ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. He has brought a greater sense of urgency to veterans-focused work, including homelessness, according to members of nonprofits that support veterans.
Touring the state, Walz also will speak to nearly 700 soldiers from the Minnesota National Guard who are about to be deployed, participate in the launch of a new veterans' treatment court in Preston, and attend a dedication of the state veterans cemetery in Duluth.
Minnesota has had veterans' courts for nearly a decade but is adding a new location in the Third Judicial District, which has its headquarters in Rochester. The courts provide services for veterans who are criminally charged and struggling with addiction or mental illness.
The governor's office also has been focused on making Minnesota the fourth state to effectively end homelessness among veterans. Minnesota added a registry to track homeless veterans under former Gov. Mark Dayton's leadership. Since Walz took office, state officials from a variety of departments have sought to move people off that list into housing and connect them with other services.
One of the big challenges is finding resources for veterans who choose not to use VA services or are not eligible, including people who served for less than two years after 1981 or were not honorably discharged, said Nathaniel Saltz, program director of the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans.
The state and federal Veterans Affairs departments have not done a lot of work together in the past on suicide prevention, Herke said. However, staff from the agencies have been meeting monthly, and sometimes weekly, to tackle homelessness. They are going to apply that collaborative model to connect people with mental health resources, he said.
Federal VA officials have said preventing suicide is a top priority and have designated grant money to address it, Herke said. The plan is to use the state's VA outreach network, which has locations in 55 communities throughout Minnesota, to identify where those dollars will have the biggest impact, he said.
The state also can be a conduit to get federal funding to nonprofits, said Trent Dilks, chief executive for Disabled American Veterans of Minnesota.
"Often there's great intentions coming out of Washington," Dilks said. "And nobody can figure out how to get to those funds."
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044