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Begich Brings Veterans Issues to Secretary Shinseki

VA Secretary commits to improved health care for rural veterans

At a hearing Feb. 26 in the Veterans Affairs Committee on the Veterans Affairs budget, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and Veterans Affairs Sec. Eric Shinseki discussed the need for improved health care, particularly for rural veterans. Shinseki and Begich had a meeting just one day earlier, on Thursday, where the two discussed a number of issues brought to Begich when he was in Alaska last week and held two field hearings for the Veterans Affairs Committee

"It is excellent news for Alaska veterans that we have the time and attention from Sec. Shinseki to hear the concerns raised by veterans in our state," Begich said. "We had a great discussion in my office Thursday, and then again at the budget hearing today, where we agreed more needs to be done to improve health care delivery for our nation's veterans, particularly those who live in rural areas."

In their discussions this week, Sen. Begich asked Sec. Shinseki to consider the idea of a "Hero's Health Card" which would allow veterans living in rural areas to access health care at the most convenient medical facility without having to incur significant costs to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to a VA facility. With the card, the veteran could get the service and have the VA billed directly by the service provider or facility.

"If you focus on the mission, which is care for the veteran, all the rest of it gets sorted out," Sec. Shinseki said. "If you can focus on that and provide that veteran needs that are right across the street - as opposed to having to incur a $1,000 travel fee to go to the VA medical center - we need to find a way to do this. We'll go to work and see if we can find the right arrangement here with Indian Health Service, for one. But there may be others."

Begich asked Shinseki to also consider working with community health centers in Alaska. Additionally, the two discussed the importance of telemedicine as an area of growth and opportunity for the future. Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health at VA, said at the budget hearing today the field of telemedicine will grow exponentially in the future.

Other issues discussed between Begich and Shinseki this week include the recent Inspector General audit of the Anchorage VA and a status report requested by Begich to be delivered in June; staffing concerns in the VA benefits section in Anchorage; veterans' claims backlog; and the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

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