Murkowski Questions Veterans Secretary on Why VA Sends So Many Alaska Vets to Lower 48 for Medical Procedures

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Top VA health care officials today promised U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that they would look into why the VA sends so many Alaska veterans to the Lower 48 for medical procedures when those services could be purchased from providers in Alaska.

Murkowski told Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that she knew of veterans in Fairbanks who were sent down to Seattle for six-week chemotherapy treatments despite the fact that there are accredited cancer treatment facilities available locally.

"These families have to make these transitions and spend six weeks in a hotel down in Seattle with the expense that is involved, but also the family separation - this is not the kind of care that our veterans deserve and that we owe to them," Murkowski said at a Senate Appropriations Veterans Subcommittee hearing on the VA's budget for Fiscal Year 2011.

"These veterans are told that ‘the regulations require us to send you outside to Seattle rather than to purchase care within the community,'" Murkowski said, asking Shinseki whether the VA was being "overly rigid" in interpreting the regulations.

Shinseki said that the VA would "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 and we'll take a look at that."

Robert Petzel, VA Undersecretary for the Veterans Health Administration, told Murkowski he knew of 685 Alaska veterans who were forced to travel to the Lower 48, usually Seattle, for medical treatments.

"It's one thing to come down for open heart surgery, which may be a super special kind of thing to do, but on the other hand, routine surgery which we could be performing in Anchorage on contract or on a fee basis is something that ought to be looked at," Petzel said. "So it's my intention to look at why those cases were sent, what types of cases were sent and see if we can find out some sort of arrangement that provides better, more community level access for those veterans."

Shinseki added that the VA needs to be doing a better job of forming partnerships with the Indian Health Service in an effort to treat Alaska Native veterans.

"A better relationship of sharing assets and capabilities, that we reach out into these areas, even as hard as we're working at it, isn't still good enough," he said. "Telehealth is another capability. We've invested in it heavily and if there's any place we should be demonstrating the power of the microprocessor, it would be places like remote tribal lands in Alaska."


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