Begich Speaks On VA Care In Alaska

Amid national outrage over the Veterans’ Administration’s handling of medical services for veterans and congressional calls for the resignation of VA secretary General Erik Shenseki, Senator Mark Begich today stopped short of calling for a resignation, but Begich said officials from the top down will be held accountable when Shenseki’s report comes out.

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(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA - Anchorage)
(Photo by Anne Hillman, KSKA – Anchorage)

Begich, a member of the Senate Veteran’s Affairs committee, spoke at the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic where he touted a collaboration in Alaska between the VA, the IHS and the neighborhood clinic to address veteran’s health care needs wherever they live.

“For example up in Nome, a beautiful new hospital up there. 800 veterans there, Native and non-Native, but they could not use that hospital,” Begich said. “They had to fly to the hub if they were in a village, fly to Anchorage for service or go to Seattle. So we figured out through these agreements, which were not easy and they’re still being worked on, a lot of complication but we figured out now that if you’re a veteran in a place like that, you could walk across the street, if you want, to get that service, right next door and the VA will reimburse them.”

Because of the agreements in Alaska, veterans can now go to 26 tribal health facilities across the state, and in Anchorage they can be seen at the Neighborhood Health Clinic.

Begich said in 2009, Alaska’s VA facility had one thousand veterans on a waiting list of 90-120 days. Now the list has dwindled to 10 and the wait time for new veterans is about 8 days. Susan Yeager is the director of VA services for Alaska, she confirmed the streamlined process and said the Alaska VA budget has gone from $150 million to $206 million this year.

“And the big change there was, in 2010, it was decided that patients with cancer needs should receive care in Alaska, because the VA is normally a hub spoke, normally we’d be sending to Seattle and it was determined at that time it’s better, more honoring veterans to receive that cancer care here in Alaska,” Yeager said. “So in 2011, that concept was expanded to any of the care that can be provided to an eligible veteran in Alaska, should be.”

Yeager said the Alaska VA facility passed a surprise inspection of their scheduling system and were told by inspectors they are scheduling in the right way.

Kimberly Cohen, executive director of the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Clinic said over the past two months they’ve started seeing more veterans come in and are currently serving about 200 veterans and hope for up to 2000 eventually.

“The first thing that’s happened with many of our veterans is, they’re not too sure about us because they think of a community health center as where poor people go,” Cohen said. “And then they come in and see they are welcomed and get really great medical care, they get really enthusiastic doctors.”

Doug Ebee, the Vice President of Medical Services for Southcentral Foundation, says the Alaska Native Health care provider is proud to be part of a system that helps veterans to be treated where they live.

“Because the only statewide network of health care in this state is the tribal system so the hundreds of small villages. While it’s 26 Native entities, it’s hundreds and hundreds, over 200 village sites and small towns and communities where the only infrastructure is the tribal system and it’s now open to everyone,” Ebee said. “So community health center payments, VA payments, everyone can go.”

Ebee says there are currently 400 veterans who are signed up and being seen at the Mat-Su Southcentral Foundation facility. He expects that to grow to thousands across the state.

The VA’s Yeager says there are 77,000 veterans in Alaska with about 30,000 signed up for VA services. She says they serve about 18,000 veterans annually.


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Lori Townsend is the News Director for the Alaska Public Radio Network. She got her start in broadcasting at the age of 11 as the park announcer of the fast pitch baseball games in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for more than 24 years. She was the co-founder and former Editor of Northern Aspects, a magazine featuring northern Wisconsin writers and artists. She worked for 7 years at tribal station WOJB on the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibway Reservation in Wisconsin, first as an on-air programmer and special projects producer and eventually News Director. In 1997 she co-hosted a continuing Saturday afternoon public affairs talk program on station KSTP in St. Paul, Minnesota. Radio brought her to Alaska where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting. Following her work there, she helped co-found the non-profit broadcast company Native Voice Communications. NVC created the award-winning Independent Native News as well as producing many other documentaries and productions. Townsend was NVC’s technical trainer and assistant producer of INN. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Her print work and interviews have been published in News from Indian Country, Yakama Nation Review and other publications. Ms. Townsend has also worked as a broadcast trainer for the Native American Journalist’s Association and with NPR’s Doug Mitchell and as a freelance editor. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. Townsend was the recipient of a Fellowship at the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting in Rhode Island as well as a fellowship at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley. She is an avid reader, a rabid gardener and counts water skiing, training horses, diving and a welding certification among her past and current interests. ltownsend (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8452 | About Lori