Sen. Mark Begich addressed delegates at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage today marking his 10th consecutive address to the convention.
Highlights of the speech included the announcement of the new Al Adams Young Political Leaders Federal Scholarship program, offered in cooperation with the First Alaskans Institute to provide scholarships for Alaska Native college students to serve internships in any Alaska delegation office in Washington, D.C.
Begich also renewed his call for the State of Alaska to accept available Medicaid funds included in health care reform. The law would allow Tribal Health Organizations to bill Medicaid for services rather than having to rely on the Indian Health Service, which has been chronically underfunded by the federal government. It would also expand coverage to 32,000 Alaskans.
Begich also mentioned the historic agreement earlier this year between the Veterans Administration and the Indian Health Service to allow Tribal Health Organizations to provide medical care for veterans in rural communities. The funding will support a network of clinics and care providers in rural Alaska while making it easier for rural veterans to get the care they need in their communities.
"It is your ideas, energy and determination that fuels our work in the nation's Capitol to deliver better veterans care, expanded health care, new infrastructure investment, energy and housing innovation, and more flexible education dollars to rural Alaska," Begich told delegates.
Full text of the speech follows:
Senator Mark Begich
Remarks to the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention
Oct. 20, 2012, 2:15 p.m. -- Dena'ina Center, Anchorage
Good afternoon - it's great to be home. I'm happy to be with you today.
Let me first thank and acknowledge the Eklutna people and Chief Lee Stephen for hosting us on their traditional land. I am so proud that while I was mayor of Anchorage, this community came together to name this beautiful convention center in honor of the first peoples of this region -- the Dena'ina. Thanks to AFN for making such good use of it for your annual convention. Earlier I got to spend a little time downstairs checking out the jewelry selection for my wife. Thank you to AFN President Julie Kitka, co-chairs Senator Albert Kookesh and Ralph Anderson, and the entire AFN board of directors and staff for the opportunity to speak with you today.
This is my 10th year at this podium -- first as Anchorage mayor and now as your United States senator. I'm pleased to have two young Native leaders helping me with rural issues: Agatha Erickson of Kaltag and Andrea Sanders of Quinhagak. Agatha travels the state for me and Andrea is based in Washington.
You have already heard from my partners in Alaska's delegation -- Senator Murkowski and Congressman Young. We are your team in Washington, D.C. We fight every day for Alaska. Just like this year's conference theme, our daily marching orders are "success beyond barriers." Today, I believe that when Alaskans work together, there are no barriers we cannot overcome. Our strength is each of you here today. It's your commitment to making Alaska a better place for our youth and elders that brings success despite the barriers. It is your ideas, energy and determination that fuels our work in the nation's Capitol to deliver better veterans care, expanded health care, new infrastructure investment, energy and housing innovation and more flexible education dollars to rural Alaska.
Just a couple of weeks ago in Sitka, I got my batteries recharged with Native energy at the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Sisterhood's 99th Grand Camp. I was incredibly honored to have been adopted into the Killer Whale Tsaagweidi Clan. I will proudly use my new Tlingit name -- Kaawusteen in the Senate. I'm told the name means guardian of the seals against oncoming killer whales. Certainly fitting for what my jobs feels like back in Washington much of the time. I was deeply humbled by this honor and will do my best to live up to my name and my clan.
Grand Camp was a wonderful celebration of the historic fight for Native voting rights, land rights and equal rights. There's another group of Alaska Natives who are showing the same level of dedication every single day to our country: the brave men and women from every corner of our state serving in our military. Many of these soldiers are serving in harm's way in Afghanistan right now. Like Specialist Otto Hunter of Quinhagak, pictured here (reference to slide show). And Sergeant Leemon Joe of Hooper Bay, Specialist Wilson Berlin of Kwethluk and Specialist Raymond Egoak of Kipnuk. I was honored to join these members of the Alaska Guard B Company at their send off last November. I'm especially looking forward to welcoming them home next month.
These soldiers are proudly following in the footsteps of their elders -- members of the Alaska Territorial Guard who courageously served their nation in World War II. Please join me in thanking today's heroes, as well as the hundreds of Alaska Natives who have honorably served our country. If you are a veteran please stand - if you are able - so we can honor you.
As a member of the Senate Armed Services and the Veterans Affairs committees, I am fighting hard to protect the benefits and services earned by our hard-working military men and women and veterans. That's why I brought the Veterans Affairs secretary to Alaska last year. This means helping rural veterans receive care close to home. We have built an amazing network of tribal health facilities across rural Alaska. There is no reason to send our veterans all the way to Anchorage -- or Seattle -- when they can often get the care they need in their home community. After years of pushing for the "Alaska Heroes Card," we made an historic breakthrough this year -- finally getting the Veterans Administration and Indian Health Service to let rural veterans receive care at tribal health facilities. Today, I am happy to tell you the VA has signed more than 25 agreements with tribal health organizations -- from Ketchikan to Kotzebue. Not only will our veterans get the care they earned and deserve, the tribal health providers will get a new revenue stream to improve care and services overall for Alaska Natives.
We're not stopping there. I am proud to have written and passed the Veterans Programs Improvement Act, which waived the co-payment for tele-health services for rural veterans. By my side fighting for veterans these past four years has been a man of great distinction, Senator Daniel Akaka. I know he addressed you yesterday. From his courageous service in World War II to his tireless service in the Congress, Senator Akaka has been a champion for Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. He will be sorely missed when he retires at the end of this year.
Another area where the Alaska and Hawaii delegations have worked to overcome barriers is helping homeless veterans. I am proud to have passed the Honoring Our Veterans Act to fund $250 million for transitional housing for homeless veterans. It also empowers tribal and community organizations to partner with the VA.
Speaking of health, it's no overstatement that your tribal health organizations are raising the bar for delivering good quality care around our state. In Barrow, Nome, Wasilla and Fairbanks, new state-of-the-art hospitals and health centers are open or on the way. And there is the nationally recognized Nuka model at Southcentral Foundation right here in Anchorage. The new health reform law -- the Affordable Care Act -- actually promotes the same patient-centered approach used by the doctors and nurses over at Nuka.
That's just one reason I voted for health reform. And even though the law's not perfect, I was pleased when the conservative-led Supreme Court upheld it this summer. Alaska Natives will see many benefits. For one, the new law permanently reauthorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and expands covered services to areas like mental health and long-term care. The Medicaid expansion in the law will cover 32,000 more of our friends and neighbors, including Alaska Natives. This means Tribal Health Organizations will get more revenue because many of their clients will be covered by the expansion. More federal funding builds up the entire system and means better-quality care for everyone.
But it's up to the state to decide. I think it's a no-brainer to accept the Medicaid money. I hope you feel the same way and will tell your legislators and the governor.
The Alaska Native tribal health system gives top-notch care to thousands of patients every day. But for many years, your organizations have not been fully compensated by the Indian Health Service for their contract support costs. This is why I recently wrote a letter, with Senator Murkowski and others, to President Obama and his cabinet. We told him to fully fund contract support costs. We also have our "Day in Court" bill to allow tribes to sue over past unpaid claims. Access to good health care is a fundamental right for all Americans!
Rural Alaska faced other barriers in Washington this year. Our opponents renewed their attacks on the Bypass Mail and Essential Air Service programs. Thanks to your cooperation, we fought them off. By preserving Essential Air Service, we saved more than $12 million for 44 Alaska communities. I'm also happy we were able to help regular service resume to Little Diomede after a three-year interruption.
And one of the most irritating issues we're fighting is the insistence of some TSA inspectors around the state that Native people must remove their kuspuks when passing through airport security. That's outrageous, which is exactly what I told the TSA administrator when he was here a few weeks ago. Kuspuks are not hoodies and TSA needs to treat everyone with dignity and respect!
Another initiative vital for rural Alaska is the Denali Commission, which has improved the lives of thousands of rural Alaskans. Just last month, the Alaska delegation introduced legislation to reauthorize and fine-tune the commission.
As we continue the fight in Washington for Alaska's unique needs, our biggest barrier is red ink. The nation's crippling debt will likely mean substantial cuts to federal programs in coming years. Our mission is working together to educate national decision makers about our challenging conditions and unique needs.
One of those is the unique relationship Alaska Natives have to their land and waters. This summer's chinook disaster underscored the importance of protecting subsistence for rural and Native Alaskans. That's why my staff and I traveled to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to host a roundtable on the fish crisis. We convened local and elected leaders and state and federal fish and game managers to hear the concerns of those who depend on healthy salmon runs. I was relieved when the federal commerce secretary agreed to our request for a fishery disaster declaration. I'll fight for funding when Congress returns to Washington after next month's elections. And we'll continue to push for better science to find out what is happening to Alaska's chinook populations.
I don't need to tell you that a major barrier to affordable living in rural Alaska is energy. A recent study by Commonwealth North underscored what we already know -- nearly 80 percent Alaska's rural communities depend on diesel for their primary energy needs. And rural households spend nearly half their income on energy. That's five times more than what many urban Alaskans spend. This is unsustainable and unacceptable. We must devise innovative solutions to rural Alaska's energy challenges.
Fortunately, many villages already are showing the way. Earlier this year in Tanana I checked out the biomass boiler being used to heat the washeteria, the biggest energy-consuming building in the village. Since installing the system two years ago, it is saving thousands in fuel bills. In Tok, their entire school is heated with a biomass boiler. And in downtown Juneau, Sealaska converted its corporate headquarters to a wood pellet boiler, saving $45,000 in one year alone. I really like this because my Juneau office is in the Sealaska Building!
Just across the inlet from here, CIRI has completed the Fire Island Wind Farm and is now selling energy to Chugach Electric. Those wind turbines you see out on the island are projected to power more than 4,000 Southcentral households. These are the types of partnerships bringing down barriers and helping keep Alaska's communities sustainable.
With the challenge of affordable energy comes enormous opportunity. I believe Alaska has the opportunity to lead the world in developing Arctic energy. That's why I pushed the Obama administration to permit responsible resource development in Arctic waters in ways that are compatible with local residents and subsistence needs. This fall on the North Slope, we required Shell to stop exploratory drilling during whaling season.
Another aspect of offshore development is ensuring that those communities directly affected receive fair compensation. My revenue sharing legislation shares profits with state and local governments and Alaska's tribes. Alaska Native companies are putting their shareholders to work developing Alaska's resources as well as capitalizing on other business opportunities. Alaska corporations, many working through the 8(a) program, are at the cutting edge of innovative fields like telecommunications and defense contracting.
As a small business owner myself, I know the challenges and promise of starting your own company. I was impressed with Richard Carroll who operates the Blue Bus in Fort Yukon. And that's why I hosted a Small Business Panel this afternoon. We discussed how to create a business, the opportunities out there for small business owners and some common barriers for small businesses rural Alaska.
Another area of great challenge and opportunity for Alaska is sustainable housing. That's why I introduced the "Rural Educator and American Community Housing Act" earlier this year. This bill authorizes $50 million in loan guarantees and grants for housing support for educators, public safety officers and medical providers in rural communities. We know that lack of housing is a chief reason it's difficult to keep professionals on the job in rural Alaska.
When it comes to public safety, I have always believed that local solutions work best for local problems. That's what my bill does. The "Alaska Safe Families and Villages Act" provides Alaska Native tribes the tools to address public safety in their own communities. What the state is doing now isn't working. I thank AFN for your strong endorsement of this bill.
I suspect there's little disagreement that the best path to success in Alaska -- whether in the smallest village or the largest city -- is quality education. That's why I continue to fight against the one-size-fits-all "No Child Left Behind Act." I pushed the governor to apply for a waiver to the federal program and was happy when he finally did this summer. However, that's not enough. We need the flexibility and the will to invest more in our schools -- especially early education and STEM - science, technology, engineering and math -- so our young Alaskans have the skills to overcome the barriers of an increasingly competitive world economy.
Anyone with a TV or radio knows this is an election year. And everyone in this room knows how influential the Alaska Native voting block is. Forty years ago, the Native vote helped put my father in the U.S. Congress. Four years ago, it put me over the top and into the U.S. Senate. That's why I'm increasingly concerned by recent trends in our state to make voting more difficult, especially for minority Alaskans. The state administration has fought Native language ballots and is seeking exemption from federal review of our election laws that have been in place since 1975. We can't - and won't - return to an earlier era when Alaska Natives and other minority groups were turned away at the ballot box because of the language they speak.
Please let your voices be heard loudly!
Let me conclude today by reflecting on the legacies of three great Alaska Native elders we lost this year: Lucy Beaver of Bethel, Richard Frank from Minto and Al Adams from Kotzebue. These respected leaders were from different regions of our state, but each employed their enormous talents and considerable patience to move their communities and our entire state forward. Being in the political business, I knew Al best -- as a legislator, an advocate for Native people and issues and a friend. Al occupied among the highest positions of political influence in our state, yet he was humble and approachable, and most importantly, generous with his knowledge. He actively encouraged young Alaskans to be involved because he knew that only by engaging the next generation can we have "success beyond barriers."
It is with this in mind that I am honored to announce a new program to honor Al Adams. Working with the First Alaskans Institute and their inspiring new president, Liz Medicine-Crow, we are creating the Al Adams Young Political Leaders Federal Scholarship. Our office and First Alaskans will recruit young Alaska Natives to do internships in the Alaska delegation's offices in Washington, D.C. This will help cover housing and travel expenses for these young leaders to come to Washington and share their wisdom from rural Alaska. It will expose them to the inner workings of our federal government -- and hopefully spark a lifelong interest in public service. This scholarship will honor Al's legacy as a political leader while benefitting future generations of young Alaskans.
I am honored to have worked with so many of you during my three decades in public life, and especially over the past four years as your United States senator. Every day I am inspired by the talent and commitment you dedicate to achieving success in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers. Working together we can build a stronger, united Alaska.