Murkowski to VA: Fix Veterans’ Healthcare in Alaska

“There Is No Compromise On What Our Veterans Have Earned”

Today U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) blasted the current leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for dismantling a healthcare system in Alaska that worked to deliver care to veterans no matter where in the state they may live. During a Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Murkowski addressed Dr. David J. Shulkin, Undersecretary of Health for the VA, laying out the many issues Alaska’s veterans now face that they didn’t struggle with before the Choice Act became law.

After describing the unacceptable state of affairs in Alaska such as chronic provider vacancies, a dysfunctional referral system, and payment delays, Murkowski asked:

“How would you assess the state of the Alaska VA healthcare system? What needs to be done to restore the access and quality of care that our veterans had that they no longer are experiencing?”

Dr. Shulkin acknowledged that after implementing the Choice Card Program, the veterans’ healthcare system in Alaska deteriorated, saying:

“…I think that Alaska had a very innovative system that was working well. Choice was implemented and that system was changed. I think that some of the situation that you are talking about was dated a while ago, where essentially we weren’t using fee-based programs. We weren’t using the Community Care programs. We were only using Choice. That system has now changed in Alaska, after our visits. We are working very closely with the Indian Health Service, the Southcentral Foundation, the DOD facilities there, where I think that you are not seeing some of the problems that were existing before. The Choice Program still continues to be a challenge.”

(Click image to watch exchange between Senator Murkowski and Dr. Shulkin.)

Dr. Shulkin reported that the VA is working closely with TriWest, its Choice Act contractor, to fix many of these issues, going as far as embedding TriWest employees with VA staff in Alaska. But he acknowledged that the VA still has a lot of work to do. 

Senator Murkowski told Dr. Shulkin that the problems are not past but present, saying:

“It’s unacceptable because we know how to correct the system, because we’ve corrected it before. And then you come in and you create chaos. You suggest that some of the information that I have here is dated—it is not dated. It is based on the experience of veterans trying to access their care now, who are getting these bills from collection agencies now. This is not based on some things that were happening a year ago, six months ago. Because what is happening now is the quality of care, the access to care, has been compromised for these Alaskan veterans and there will be no compromise.”

Dr. Shulkin responded that he will continue to work with Senator Murkowski to fix the issues she highlighted, and noted that the VA has established a toll-free hotline for veterans to call if they are being harassed by creditors in order for the VA to intervene on their behalf. That number is 1-877-881-7618.

Background: Senator Murkowski successfully inserted multiple provisions in the FY16 Veterans Affairs appropriations bill, one of which requires the Government Accountability Office to independently assess why the Choice Program is failing veterans, both in Alaska and around the country. The other provision requires that the VA report to Congress on its plans going forward for providing healthcare to Alaska veterans in their home communities when the VA cannot provide it in their own facilities. This report should have been delivered to Congress in February.