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Begich Brings Solutions, Results for Alaska Veterans

Says Alaska Must Serve as Model for Nationwide Effort to Deliver Better Care for our Veterans

U.S. Senator Mark Begich today proposed using Alaska’s success to tackle the tough problems plaguing veterans clinics in the Lower 48 and he highlighted the generally excellent care Alaska’s veterans receive while noting there is still more work to be done.

At an Anchorage press conference, Begich was joined by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) staff and VA health partners to describe innovative programs being implemented in Alaska to address the chronic problems of long wait times, lack of doctors and medical staff, and the funding shortages that have prevented the purchase of necessary equipment and medication.  Begich also spoke Wednesday to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to demand fixes to the problems in Arizona and across the country including unacceptably long wait times for veterans.

“There are few more important responsibilities we have as a nation than to give proper care to those who have sacrificed so much for us,” said Begich.  “Since day one in the Senate, I have been fighting to make sure Alaska’s veterans – especially those off the road system in rural villages – receive adequate health care.  We have made incredible progress. But we are not done and we cannot ignore the devastating and unacceptable situation happening at VA centers in the rest of the country.  Alaska’s first-in-the-nation system is working and it should serve as a model for the rest of the country.”

Begich noted that he began working on gaps in veterans’ access to health services immediately upon coming into office and began hearing from Alaskan veterans who were having trouble getting the care they needed.

“Here in Alaska, we do not wait to have the national news tell us what’s going on with the VA,” said Begich.  “My staff and I know what’s going on here. We have regular meetings with the VA.  As a result of our good relationship with local providers here in Alaska, we got ahead of the issues that may be bedeviling other states.”

Calling the situation in Arizona VA hospitals “unacceptable and outrageous,” Begich committed to doing everything in his power to fix the situation and to provide veterans with the care they have earned and deserve.  Begich, a member of both the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee, has pushed for increased funding for the VA and for innovative programs to provide better access to care and to attract more qualified individuals to work in VA health facilities across the nation.  Examples include:

The Hero Card:  This program enables Alaskan veterans to use their vet identification cards to access health care at most Indian Health Service (IHS) funded Tribal clinics and hospitals across Alaska.  This enables Alaskan veterans to get care in their own communities instead of travelling to the VA for care, a trip that can cost thousands of dollars and be challenging for ill vets.  Begich helped implement this program by pushing the VA and Tribal health entities to enter into an agreement through which the Tribal hospitals and clinics are reimbursed for the cost of providing care to veterans.   As a result, veterans all across Alaska can now get the care they need closer to home.

Contracting with Local Providers for Primary Care:  In the past the VA has been reluctant to contract out for medical services, only outsourcing services for cancer treatment and other advanced medical care.  Without adequate staffing to meet the growing demands from Alaska’s increasing veteran population, the wait list for primary care treatment grew until more than 900 vets were on the Alaska waiting list for primary care—a list that averaged a 60-90 day wait.  At Begich’s urging, the Alaska VA entered into an agreement with Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center (ANHC) a federally qualified health center, and private practices such as the Cornerstone Clinic, Providence Hospital and Southcentral Foundation for primary care.

Forward Funding for VA Health Services:  In the past, the VA faced significant challenges because of sporadic funding.  In order to buffer the VA from the funding inconsistencies, in 2009 Begich and the members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved forward funding for VA health care, that is, the VA could rely upon a dedicated, uninterrupted funding stream for two years.  This significantly increased the ability of the VA to deliver services more effectively, recruit and hire more staff and purchase equipment and supplies more efficiently. Begich recently introduced S.B. 932 Putting Veterans First Act which would forward fund the budget for the entire Department of Veterans Affairs.

Public Health Officers:  Begich proposed that the VA reduce wait times for veterans seeking medical care by filling current staffing vacancies at VA clinics with public health officers.  In a letter sent today to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Begich called on Shinseki to exercise his authority under 42 United States Code Section 215 to request U.S. Public Health Service officers to fill VA clinic staff vacancies.  Public Health Service officers have a proven record of providing quality health care in areas across the United States to underserved populations.

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