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Begich Secures Commitment for Better Coordination on Rural Veterans Care

VA Agrees to meeting with IHS focused on improving care in Alaska

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, chairing a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, today secured a commitment from the Veterans Administration (VA) to a high level meeting in the next three months with officials from the Indian Health Services (IHS) to focus on ways to improve care for rural veterans.

The topic of the hearing was VA Health Care in Rural Areas and included testimony from three Alaska witnesses directly involved in health care delivery to Alaska's veterans.

"I am pleased the VA recognizes the challenges faced by Alaska's veterans, particularly in rural areas, in accessing affordable and easily available health care services," Begich said. "The more we can coordinate and find ways to improve the system, the better off Alaska's veterans will be."

The committee heard testimony from Dan Winkelman, Vice President and General Counsel at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation; Brigadier General Deborah McManus, Assistant Adjutant General and Commander, Alaska National Guard; and Verdie Bowen, Director, Office of Veterans Affairs, Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

All of the Alaska witnesses testified about the difficulty in providing efficient services for veterans in rural parts of the state.

Winkelman testified that high energy, food and personnel costs add to the enormous disparity rural veterans have in accessing health care, a problem compounded by the fact there are few veterans health facilities in rural areas.

"To lack access upon their return from duty to culturally appropriate and quality health care services by the VA is a shame," Winkelman said.

Witnesses talked about the possibility and need for allowing rural veterans to access care at IHS funded facilities and have the VA reimburse the provider later, in many cases saving money and time by not forcing veterans to travel to Alaska's larger cities where VA facilities are located.

In response to the testimony and under questioning from Sen. Begich, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management, William Schoenhard agreed to organize a high level meeting between VA and IHS officials in the next few months.

"We should collaborate. I would certainly welcome how we can better serve and get veterans engaged with IHS," Schoenhard testified.

Schoenhard admitted the VA doesn't have a thorough understanding of some of the obstacles faced by rural veterans and is looking at ways to revitalize the Rural Pilot Project, an outreach program designed to enroll more rural Alaska veterans in the VA health system.

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