Murkowski Raises Alaska Veterans Healthcare Access Problems with VA Secretary Shinseki

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki today told U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that he wants to try to ease the serious VA healthcare access problems facing veterans in rural Alaska.
At a meeting in the senator’s office, Murkowski invited Shinseki to visit Alaska and see those challenges first hand. Shinseki said he would like to visit the state.
Murkowski used the 45-minute meeting with Shinseki to reiterate a variety of concerns regarding VA healthcare in Alaska.
Veterans in Fairbanks and Southeast are being asked to fly to Seattle and Anchorage for treatment that the VA can’t provide in their hometowns but community providers can. Veterans in rural Alaska receive no VA healthcare unless they can travel to a VA facility, often at their own expense.
The meeting followed a letter Murkowski sent to Shinseki last week (read here) in which she underscored that many Alaska veterans are effectively disenfranchised from utilizing their earned VA healthcare benefit due to the distance between their homes and the nearest VA facility. A member of the Senate Appropriations Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, Murkowski emphasized the plight of rural veterans who have no direct access to VA facilities.
“I asked Secretary Shinseki to look into why the VA still does not purchase care from the Alaska Native Health System and Alaska’s Community Health Centers,” Murkowski said. “The secretary indicated that he intends to meet with the national leadership of the Indian Health Service to explore ways that the VA and the Indian Health Service might partner together. I hope the administration will follow through and help us solve this critical problem facing Alaska veterans.”
Murkowski told Shinseki that it was important for Alaska Native veterans to understand that the VA respects their service to the nation. In that regard, she asked Shinseki to speak at the 2009 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, or if his schedule doesn’t permit a visit, to send a message to the convention. 
Tomorrow, the VA Alaska Health System will brief the state’s congressional delegation staff on several new initiatives in the works to improve care in rural Alaska. The briefing was scheduled following Murkowski’s letter to Shinseki. The initiatives include:
·         A pilot project to demonstrate the use of expanded fee-basis authority in providing primary care services to highly rural Alaskan Veterans.  This project will impact approximately 600 enrolled Veterans in the Bethel Census Area, Bristol Bay Borough, Dillingham Census Area and the City of Cordova.  The pilot activation is scheduled for June 1, 2009.
  • A National Care Coordination Home Telehealth project, which includes a planned expansion into Alaska.
  • A Care Coordination Store and Forward project, which includes funding for teleretinal imaging equipment planned for the Kenai, Alaska, Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC).
  • A Care Coordination General Telehealth project, which will benefit Veterans across all of VISN 20 (Veterans Integrated Service Network 20), including Alaska