Vets vent about poor VA care during listening sessions in Fairbanks, Kenai

Alaska military veterans testified yesterday at listening sessions in Kenai and Fairbanks about problems accessing federally funded health care benefits. Interior veterans shared concerns specific to the Veterans Choice Act, as well as more general issues about working with the Veterans Administration.

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Alaska U.S. Senator and Veteran’s Affairs Committee member Dan Sullivan organized the in state listening sessions in light of what he describes as Alaska-specific problems with Veterans Choice Act passed last year.

“The Choice Act, ironically, is in many ways based on the model of Alaska — meaning, to allow veterans to access health care outside the VA system: Native health centers, other centers, and to provide flexibility. The irony is, that when it was implemented, it started to cut off funding for those very programs in Alaska,” Sen. Sullivan says.

Alaska Native Veteran's Association President Benno Cleveland (foreground) speaks at VA listening session. Credit Dan Bross / KUAC
Alaska Native Veteran’s Association President Benno Cleveland (foreground) speaks at VA listening session. Credit Dan Bross / KUAC

Sullivan and a team of Veterans Administration officials, heard from numerous Interior vets, many of whom, like Marine and Army vet William Fisher lamented general problems with the VA healthcare system, like basic inability to even reach the agency. Fisher says he spent the last week trying to get through.

“I was on the phone for approximately one to one-and-a-half hours each time,” he says. “I purposely chose to call in the morning once, lunch time, and in the evening — different times. They’re always swamped. When you get through, half the time you get hung up on. The other half the time the people you talk to can’t give you a straight answer.”

Fisher says the situation has left him with unpaid medical bills.

“I have a bill now that’s about a year old. I still get these nasty letters. Now they say in the next seven days, if I don’t respond, it’s going to a collections agency.”

Others like John Taylor of Salcha, pointed to issues specifically related to the new Choice Act Program.

“The main difference is, if you want to speak to a doctor, if you want to have a blood test, if you have to have a procedure like a colonoscopy — you have to have it approved by Choice first. If you don’t get it approved or the approval doesn’t go through, they will cancel you.”

Alaska Native Veteran’s Association President Benno Cleveland addressed a basic communication gap between Alaska veterans and the VA.

“We have many — a tremendous amount — of veterans who are out in the villages. Not only do we have Native veterans out there we have other vets out there from all walks of life and all walks of cultures. And we speak English, but we don’t speak your English. Our English is a little different and has different meanings. So when we tap into the VA and everything else, it’s frustrating not only on the veterans, but it’s also frustrating on the VA.”

Cleveland suggested funding training some Alaska veterans to help others navigate the system. Recently appointed VA health undersecretary David Shulkin assured the veterans their concerns are being heard.

“We’re not committed to the old way of the VA doing things. I am committed to fixing this to make sure that this works for you and for veterans around the country.”

The Alaska listening sessions were held in anticipation of a formal Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee field hearing on the Choice Act happening Tuesday in Eagle River.