Issue Position: Veterans
The President's VA budget for Fiscal Year 2009, which begins on October 1, 2008, totals $93.7 billion. The total request is $3.4 billion above the funding level for 2008. The President's 2009 request includes $41.2 billion for VA medical care, an increase of $2.3 billion over the 2008 level and more than twice the funding available at the beginning of the Bush Administration. This budget is the starting point for Congressional consideration of VA funding levels. Congress will set the VA's Fiscal Year 2009 funding levels when it completes work on the appropriations bills later this year.
For the current fiscal year, Congress has appropriated $37.2 billion in funding for veterans health programs which was $2.6 billion above the Administration's request for FY2008 The amount appropriated for VA medical services included an additional $125 million to increase the beneficiary travel reimbursement mileage rate to 28.5 cents per mile.
While the VA has enjoyed healthy budgets in recent years, Alaska veterans continue to face challenges in obtaining access to VA healthcare services in the state. VA healthcare is primarily provided through the VA Outpatient Clinic in Anchorage, the Air Force-VA Joint Venture Hospital on Elmendorf Air Force Base and Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Fairbanks and Kenai. The VA purchases a limited amount of care for Alaska veterans from private physicians and hospitals, preferring to provide the care at VA facilities in the Lower 48 over purchasing it from community providers.
Senator Murkowski has long been concerned about the distance that Alaska veterans must travel to receive care. Veterans who live near to VA facilities in Alaska are often required to travel to other VA facilities in the Lower 48 to receive care that is not available from the Alaska VA. Veterans who do not live close to VA facilities must travel to receive their earned healthcare benefits, often at their own expense.
Senator Murkowski has urged the VA to open more CBOCs in Alaska. The Alaska VA is seeking approval to site a new CBOC in the Mat-Su Valley and recently received approval for a CBOC in Juneau. In response to the concerns expressed by veterans that they had to pay for their own hotel rooms when traveling to Anchorage for VA healthcare, Senator Murkowski worked with former VA Secretary Nicholson to reinstitute a previous policy that the VA would pay for the accommodations of eligible Alaska veterans who needed to travel to Anchorage for VA care.
As Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Senator Murkowski convened a hearing in November 2007, to explore how well the VA is serving veterans who live in rural Alaska. Senator Murkowski urged the VA to enter into agreements with the Alaska Native healthcare system to treat veterans who live in rural Alaska at the VA's expense.
Senator Murkowski is also working to improve the processing of disability claims filed by Alaska veterans. In response to concerns expressed by numerous Veterans Service Officers about delays in resolving disability claims appeals, Senator Murkowski has asked the VA to assign a full-time Decision Review Officer to Anchorage.