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Veterans' benefits total $7 million in county

Wadena County's 1,228 veterans received more than $7 million in state and federal VA benefits in 2008, according to a recently released report from the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.

David Anderson, the county's veterans services officer, is pleased with the total number, which amounts to $5,739 per veteran, but would like to see it even higher. Not all veterans in the county use the services, he said.

"If every veteran in Wadena County got 10 percent [service-connected benefits] this number would be way higher," Anderson said.

The 2008 total was an increase from the $6.9 million dollars county veterans received in 2007, which does not include retirement money.

Anderson was excited about numbers from July 2007 to June 2008 when he helped veterans receive $37,874 for subsistence and dental and optical services from the MDVA. Veterans in the county received $7,940 from July 2007 to June 2008 for subsistence compared to zero dollars the previous year. Dollars for dental and optical services rose from $5,576 the previous fiscal year to $29,934 from July 2007 to June 2008. A lion's share of this money is spent at local dental and eye care clinics, Anderson said.

VA Regional Office benefits also saw an increase in the county with dollars received increasing from nearly $3 million from October 2006 to September 2007 to almost $3.3 million from October 2007 to September 2008.

According to the report, 52 percent of veterans used VA medical centers in 2008, which was an increase from 50 percent in 2007. Although the percentage of veterans using VAMCs increased, the total dollars received decreased slightly to $3.7 million in 2008 from $3.9 million in 2007.

Anderson described a possible reason why numbers can go down. If veterans only have physicals and are not recommended for major surgery, then dollars spent are not going to be as high.

There are also particular issues for old and young veterans.

If a veteran is 85 years old, on Social Security and getting some kind of supplement he may choose to just go to Tri-County Hospital rather than make the trip to the VAMC in Brainerd, Anderson said.

If younger veterans are not in pain they generally don't seek out veterans benefits, he said. "Unless some of these [veterans] are getting out of Iraq and they have some significant problems ... or they've gotten themselves into a little bit of a bind then they'll come see me," Anderson added.

Anderson presented the report before the county board. The four commissioners present for the report are veterans.

Commissioner Dave Schermerhorn said veterans need to use VA benefits or lose them.

"This was promised to you when you signed your name on that line," he said. "If people don't utilize the programs they go away."

Anderson echoed Schermerhorn's sentiments.

"I'm a little concerned with just what I've seen out of this administration that if veteran numbers don't go up some bean counter is going to go this is such a small percentage of the population, none of them hardly use these systems, we can save billions by doing away with this," Anderson said.