Murkowski Doubles Down on VA Over Choice Card Failure in Alaska

This week, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) continued to press the leadership of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) over issues with the current VA healthcare system in Alaska. Following up on her discussion last week with Dr. David Shulkin, Undersecretary of Health for the VA, over the failings of the Choice Card Program in Alaska, Senator Murkowski questioned Robert McDonald, the Secretary of the VA, on the lessons learned from his August 2015 visit to the state, whether or not he understands the unique challenges veterans in Alaska face, and his plans to fix those issues.

(Click image to watch Senator Murkowski and Secretary McDonald discuss Alaska’s VA healthcare system.)

Murkowski began by asking Secretary McDonald how he intends to establish an integrated system of VA healthcare that works for Alaska, saying:

“I’m concerned with the various proposals out there to ‘consolidate’ community care. We don’t want to participate in a national ‘consolidated’ program. We need a program that is custom developed for the fact that we are non-contiguous, highly rural state, with a mismatch between demand for providers, which is very, very high, and supply of providers, which is unfortunately terribly low, and a medical community that is self-sustained within the state.”

Secretary McDonald acknowledged that the VA is working to replicate Alaska’s unique “Care Closer to Home” program, which worked to deliver care to veterans no matter where in the state they may live, saying:

“As we put this program together…it’s with the learnings from Alaska as part of it. We need to have in that network the Alaska Native Health System, we need to return to all the things we had before Choice. The problem with Choice is it created a single entry system…and I know that doesn’t work in Alaska. We need to get back to where we were in Alaska.”

Murkowski responded by emphasizing they must coordinate and collaborate to come to an agreement about what exactly worked in Alaska prior to the Choice program, and what must be done to return to that system. She also encouraged Secretary McDonald and other VA officials to keep in mind the veterans they are working to help during this process, saying:

“Know that when I’m sitting in an airplane, with a veteran, who is not talking statistics, he’s talking about his care, he’s talking about how he was treated, about what it meant for him to basically feel like there was no response.”

Secretary McDonald confirmed to Senator Murkowski that VA officials will meet with her and staff to discuss proposed solutions to the VA healthcare system. Meanwhile, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is scheduled to begin consideration of legislation to reform the Choice Program on Tuesday.

Related Issues: Veterans