Secretary Shinseki Tells Sen. Murkowski VA Will Work to Improve Healthcare Access for Veterans in Rural Alaska

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki today acknowledged to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski that Alaska’s unique geography makes it difficult to provide VA healthcare access to veterans in rural Alaska but he pledged to find ways to remedy the situation.
“Geography in the United States by definitions used in the VA has three categories – urban, rural and highly rural,” Shinseki said. “I’m not sure what category we use for those areas where there are no roads and you can’t get into, and I know that’s part of the geography you’re dealing with. I’ve asked our VHA (Veterans Health Administration) to start thinking about how we take care of veterans in those areas.”
Shinseki made his comments before a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.
Murkowski, a member of the panel, was following up on a meeting she had with Shinseki last month in which she underscored that many Alaska veterans are effectively disenfranchised from utilizing their earned VA healthcare benefits due to the distance between their homes and the nearest VA facility. 
“Perhaps we need to look at Alaska as a unique and different situation and we need to be a little more creative and nimble in how we deliver these benefits because our veterans should not be denied benefits just because of where they choose to live,” Murkowski told Shinseki today. 
Shinseki indicated that the VA would be seeking out partnerships with Alaska tribal healthcare programs in an effort to serve veterans who are not on the road system.
VA Acting Undersecretary for Health Gerald Cross, who also testified, echoed Shinseki.
“I think it’s fair to say that we need to adapt our services to meet the environment that they are provided in and to meet the needs of those veterans and I think certainly the Alaska environment provides unique challenges for us so we have to be especially innovative,” he said.
Cross said the VA could help Alaska through “outreach clinics,” such as those slated for Juneau and Homer, and rural health initiatives, including telemedicine programs and prescription deliveries by mail so that veterans don’t have to visit a pharmacy.
“We have much to learn and much innovation to bring forward in regard to our veterans in Alaska and we look forward to working on that,” he said.
Murkowski reiterated her invitation for Shinseki to visit Alaska, and Shinseki said he would make the trip.