Traveling to the Twin Ports VA Clinic to see a doctor can be difficult for veterans living in rural Carlton County, county Veterans Service officer Duane Brownie told Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Problems with the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to use private health care if they live more than 40 miles from a VA clinic, and issues with funding and benefits for the National Guard and Reserves were among the issues that Klobuchar heard about during a panel discussion on Saturday. About 70 people attended the discussion at VFW Post 3979 in Cloquet.

Noting that there has been an effort in Congress to eliminate the 40-mile restriction in the Veterans Choice Program, Brownie told Klobuchar that he wants Carlton County veterans to be able to see local health providers instead of traveling to the VA Clinic in Superior. Hands went up when Brownie asked how many veterans in the room want to be able to visit a local doctor instead of traveling to the VA.

"Driving even that 40 miles sometimes is very difficult for our local veterans, and we have an aging population. My whole concern that you can bring back to Washington, D.C., is: Let's eliminate the 40-mile radius and provide the best quality primary care available for our veterans within the medical arena in the private sector and then allow them to communicate with specialists within the VA system regarding specialty care services. I think that would be a great starting point and asset for the people who live in the rural area," Brownie said.

Veterans Choice was started with good intentions, but it created problems for veterans that include where they can go for health care, Klobuchar said. There's a number of senators working to fix the problems with the legislation, and the 40-mile restriction is a problem she has heard from veterans in other areas of Minnesota, too, she said.

"Minnesota has tended to have a better (VA) system than some states, but as Duane pointed out, there's issues when you're not right next to, not in the Twin Cities or St. Cloud where there is a VA," she said.

Col. Anthony Polashek, commander of the 934th Airlift Wing in Minneapolis, told Klobuchar that funding is an issue when Congress passes temporary funding measures instead of a budget for the National Guard.

"Those are severely handicapping us in our ability to train and keep folks ready to deploy, and we're really feeling that pain right now. A lot of missions across the country are already canceled because the funding is gone," Polashek said. "A new appropropriations bill, some kind of continuity in funding issued, it affects us differently than regular Air Force counterparts because they continue to press on. They know they're going to have a paycheck, they know they're going to have a way to report for duty. But our part-timers do not."

Klobuchar responded that Polashek is correct and that it has become difficult. Minnesota is in the top 10 for states with the highest number of National Guard and Reserve members, and she said she doesn't want a situation where budget constraints hurts the National Guard and Reserves, who are more easily able to mobilize immediately for incidents such as floods.

Col. Jon Safstrom, commander of the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth, noted that Klobuchar has been successful in ensuring that National Guard and Reserve members receive education and health care benefits that are equal to benefits received by active duty servicemembers. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the National Guard has become more operational, and the 148th deploys every other year, he said.

Klobuchar added, "It's really an amazing thing. You can literally have the same assignment when you're deployed, but you don't get the same benefits as someone that is a different classification, if they're active duty versus guard or reserve. This means you can literally serve alongside, next to someone who is getting benefits you're not. Same risk on the battlefield, but different benefits."

Klobuchar also received support from the audience for her work on burn pits, which affect veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The senator is working on legislation to create a center in the VA to study the effects of the burn pits. She noted that Minnesotan Amie Muller was exposed to burn pits while serving in Iraq with the 148th Air National Guard and died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 36.

After the panel discussion, Klobuchar told the News Tribune that she worked on legislation to create a homeless veterans program that gives them vouchers to use facilities in metropolitan areas. She also believes that funding for veterans' mental health services is important, and she helped get statewide funding for Beyond the Yellow Ribbon to help National Guard and Reserve members who return home.