Calling progress made by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in Alaska "a model for the nation," U.S. Senator Mark Begich today urged his colleagues to follow Alaska's lead on VA health care access and to put aside partisan politics in order to pass the Ensuring Veterans Access to Care Act.
"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. "Though the VA system has been getting a lot of media attention these days, it's been the focus of my attention from my first day in the Senate and it continues to be a top priority."
"My staff and I have regular meetings with the VA and we partner together to identify problems and find solutions," said Begich. "As a result of our good relationship with local providers in Alaska, we are way ahead of the issues that are just surfacing in other states. I want to bring the same progress we've made in Alaska over the past five years to the VA at the national level."
Begich described measureable progress in Alaska's VA health system and proposed the Alaska system become the model for VA clinics and hospitals around the nation. Alaska is home to 77,000 veterans and has the highest proportion of veterans in the country -- over 13 percent of the entire population. With many of the veterans living in rural communities off the road system, the Alaska VA and its partners have had to develop innovative programs to ensure delivery of care to Alaska veterans, some who live hundreds of miles from the nearest VA clinic.
Begich explained that even with those logistical challenges, the improvements in Alaska have been real. Waiting lists have gone from up to 900 individuals waiting for care down to about a dozen. And while many veterans were previously waiting 2-3 months to receive care, the average wait time now is just around a week.
Begich voiced his support for the proposal in the Ensuring Veterans Access to Care Act, Senator Bernie Sander's (I-VT) bill, to increase loan forgiveness for health care providers who choose to serve in the VA. A related bill that Begich introduced with Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) would increase important psychiatric services for vets through a pilot program offering loan forgiveness for those who practice in the VA.
On the issue of accountability for the secret waitlists that are being blamed for deaths of veterans in Phoenix, Begich re-stated his support for Sen. Sanders' proposal to give the VA Secretary authority to immediately remove incompetent senior executives based on poor job performance, while still maintaining due process for those employees.
"Earlier this year we tried to pass a bill similar to the Ensuring Veterans Access to Care Act on this Senate floor but couldn't get the job done -- frankly, because of partisan politics," said Begich. "This time, there should be no political jockeying. We need to pass this bill now. After the headlines of the last few weeks it should be clear to every single one of us in this body that there can be no more excuses."
In an effort to bring the Alaska model of access to care to vets around the nation, this week Begich invited VA Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson to Alaska to see firsthand the great progress made over the last four years by expanding outreach, telemedicine, and reducing long wait times. Begich encouraged Secretary Gibson, who just assumed acting leadership of the VA earlier this week, to use Alaska's innovative programs as a model for the VA's nationwide effort to deliver better care for veterans. A copy of Begich's letter to Secretary Gibson is attached.
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 providers 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. 932, the 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 to then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Begich called on the agency to exercise its 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 to underserved populations around the country.