WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and the VA's Undersecretary for Health, Dr. Robert Petzel, promised U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski that the VA will do better in purchasing care for Alaska veterans from Alaska community providers, rather than require they travel to the VA Hospital in Seattle, when the VA cannot provide the care at its facilities in Alaska.

Murkowski today in a Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee hearing questioned Shinseki and Petzel about the progress made since April 2010 when Murkowski again questioned that Alaska veterans are being forced to travel to Seattle when adequate care is available from community providers in Alaska.

In the April 2010 appropriations subcommittee hearing, Shinseki told Murkowski, "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."

Today, VA Undersecretary Petzel admitted to Murkowski that he was not pleased with the progress the VA has made. Petzel said, "I think there are more things that can be done. You have my promise we are going to look much more carefully at being able to provide more of the care in the community. There will be an occasional thing where it might be in the veteran’s best interest to travel outside Alaska for care. We will do a better job in looking for alternatives in the community."

Secretary Shinseki added that the VA is currently paying $4 billion a year to purchase care for veterans that cannot be delivered in VA facilities and that budget will go up significantly in the 2012-2013 timeframe. Shinseki noted, "We do have the ability to refer patients to civilian healthcare in communities where we're not able provide it. I will work with Dr. Petzel to set some objectives and let's go and work at them."

While pleased with the response, Murkowski observed that there are older veterans in Alaska who are being directed to VA facilities in Seattle today for care that could be purchased in Anchorage. She cited the case of a 79 year old veteran who has been asked to travel to Seattle for an orthopedic consult and a 74 year old veteran who has been told that the VA will only perform surgery to remove his goiter in Seattle.

Murkowski commended the VA for changing its prior policy which required Alaska chemotherapy patients to travel to Seattle for care. Shinseki and Petzel agreed to review that policy in response to Murkowski's questioning last year.

The VA also committed to do better in allowing Alaska veterans living in rural areas to access care through the Alaska Native health system.