Op - Ed: VA struggling to serve Alaska's veterans

On Memorial Day, Alaska welcomes Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki for his first visit since taking office in 2009. Alaska is proud to be the state with the most veterans per capita in the country: 77,000 and growing. Unfortunately, Alaska is also the state in which the VA may be most challenged to effectively serve its beneficiaries.

The VA is aware it must adapt to the unique challenges of Alaska's geography. While the VA has categories like "rural" and "highly rural" for the Lower 48, Shinseki himself admits the VA lacks a term to describe "village Alaska," where a veteran may have to travel 600 miles on two airplanes to access the Anchorage VA clinic. It's no wonder many Vietnam-era rural veterans have simply chosen to forego their earned benefits.

The same fate befalls rural veterans of our current conflicts. Congress awarded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans five years of free VA health care in 2006 - but did not fund travel. In November 2007, I convened a Senate field hearing to ask why Alaska's rural veterans were disenfranchised from help because of our geography. The VA was urged to partner with the Native health system and Community Health Centers to fill the gap. Nearly four years later, that five-year promise to rural Alaska's veterans is unfulfilled.

In 2009, Alaska VA responded to years of criticism of ignoring rural Alaska by launching a rural health pilot project. An independent evaluation deemed the pilot a flop. Why? Ninety-two percent of veterans surveyed said they didn't use it; 69 percent said they never heard of the pilot project or didn't understand it. Rural health providers complained that authorized visits were too few and VA requirements too bureaucratic. The pilot project is now history, replaced with nothing.

Sadly, these are not the only examples of the VA's failure. The Alaska VA can service but a fraction of veterans' health care needs at its facilities. Though VA officials eagerly point to millions of dollars spent purchasing care from Alaska community providers, a VA Inspector General report revealed that 591 Alaska veterans were required to travel Outside for VA care in 2008-2009 and 63 percent of them lived in Anchorage and the Mat-Su.

One of those was 87-year-old World War II veteran Warren Hoflich of Soldotna. Hoflich was recommended to the Seattle VA for a prostate procedure which could have been performed on the Peninsula. A VA physician in Kenai noted that Hoflich's multiple medical problems made travel even to Anchorage "nearly out of the question." Hoflich died before the issue could be resolved. Tragically his family spent the final days of Hoflich's life fighting with the VA.

On April 15, 2010, Secretary Shinseki promised me, "We are going to look very closely at why we would send a veteran on a 2,000-mile journey if there is competent, safe health care available close by."

In spite of that promise, elderly Alaska veterans continued to be directed to Seattle. At a VA appropriations hearing this March, I told Shinseki about a 79-year-old Anchorage veteran directed to Seattle for an orthopedic consultation and a 74-year-old veteran directed to travel Outside for goiter surgery. The Alaska VA had told me it lacked legal authority to purchase care in Anchorage because it could be provided at the VA facility in Seattle. Yet, Secretary Shinseki stated, "We do have the ability to refer patients to civilian health care in communities where we're not able provide it." Shortly thereafter the Alaska VA promised to purchase care for both in Anchorage. It ought not to take an "act of Congress" for the VA to provide care to veterans in Alaska.

Secretary Shinseki has been sympathetic to my call for the VA to improve service in Alaska. Thanks to his intervention, veterans with cancer no longer must travel to Seattle for chemotherapy and radiation. Yet the VA still has a long way to go in ensuring that Alaska's veterans can fully access the benefits they earned. Let's hope that Secretary Shinseki's visit brings us closer to this goal.