Sen. Murkowski Will Urge VA Secretary Shinseki to Fix the Healthcare Access Problems Facing Veterans in Rural Alaska

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has a message for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki when they meet next week in her office here: Get serious about fixing the serious VA healthcare access problems facing veterans in rural Alaska.
Murkowski, a member of the Senate Appropriations Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, laid out her concerns in a letter she sent to Shinseki today (see attachment).
Alaska’s senior senator expressed deep disappointment that a new $215 million VA funding initiative for veterans in rural areas would do little to ease the access problems for rural Alaska veterans, many of whom live in remote villages and have no direct road access to VA healthcare facilities.
“I understand that the Northwest Network, which includes Alaska, was awarded $13.65 million of this $215 million for four projects,” Murkowski wrote to Shinseki. “Although Alaska is home to about 75,000 veterans and some of the most rural and highly rural areas of the country, it does not appear that any of the $215 million will address the serious access problems that face Alaska’s rural and highly rural veterans.”
Murkowski said it is “deeply disappointing” that the VA did not view the availability of the $215 million as an opportunity to address the access problems in Alaska. 
“These veterans, many of whom are descendants of the Eskimo, Indian and Aleut peoples that originally lived in Alaska, are effectively disenfranchised from utilizing their earned VA healthcare benefit due to the distance between their homes and the nearest VA facility,” she wrote.
As the then-vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Murkowski conducted an Anchorage field hearing in November 2007 on how to provide care to Alaska’s rural veterans. That hearing produced three conclusions: the VA has no mechanism for serving rural Alaska veterans in their communities or in the regional hubs; the VA says it lacks the legal authority to purchase care for these veterans from tribal health centers and hospitals; and rural Alaska veterans have all but written off their earned VA healthcare benefits as a result of the access problems they face.
“I must sadly report that little has changed since November 2007 in spite of frequent conversations between my staff, the Anchorage VA health care system and the leadership of VISN 20 (Veterans Integrated Service Network 20),” she wrote.
Murkowski said she is hopeful that the new administration will take a “fresh look at the challenges of delivering VA healthcare in Alaska. Perhaps our meeting next Thursday will prove to be the catalyst for this new direction.”