Secretary of Veterans Affairs General Eric Shinseki today assured Senator Lisa Murkowski that he is deeply committed to delivering the care earned by America's veterans in rural and remote areas -- critically important in Alaska where 80 percent of communities are "off the road system" -- during a hearing of the Senate Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee.
After Senator Murkowski pointed out that there have been some difficulties in creating "care close to home" for Alaskans, Shinseki responded that "our commitment is that a veteran in a rural or remote area has the same entitlement to access to care -- that's what we're committed to."
Murkowski then took the opportunity to highlight Alaska's pioneering approach to inter-agency agreements to serve Alaska's veterans like that between the VA and Indian Health Services -- recommending it as a model for other states.
"In Alaska, we have an agreement between the VA and the Native Health System, where the Veterans can go to the IHS facilities for that level of care, so it's within their region," said Senator Murkowski. "It might not be necessarily in their village, but it's within their region, so they don't have to fly to the major cities for this level of care. It was something that Senator Stevens and I had worked on. We think it can be an opportunity, particularly in very rural areas whether it's South Dakota, or New Mexico."
Shinseki indicated that while there is not a one-sided approach to fixing the many concerns facing rural America, it is their commitment to provide level access to care system wide.
"There isn't a cookie cutter approach to this, and we use everything from recruitment and retention bonuses to having an affiliation with a local medical school and bringing together VA resources with what's already there," said Secretary Shinseki. "Having this Memorandum of Understanding with the Indian Health Service, to provide services that veterans can get access to and we reimburse for it, so that we're not trying to deliver something that's already there and then tele-health/telemedicine to give access wherever they are able to enter the VA system. So it's all of the above."
Access to care has long been a concern of Alaskan veterans-- as the state with the largest veteran population per capita and the highest increase in veterans in the past decade. Senator Murkowski advocated for Secretary Shinseki to retain his post as head of the VA last November, citing the great momentum built under his leadership and tremendous improvements to care and services nationwide.
In addition to questions on basic access for all veterans, Senator Murkowski concluded with clarifications on life-extending therapies associated with the devastating disease ALS, which has been recognized as having severe connections to retired service members -- with military members twice as likely to develop the disease.
"Apparently, these life extending measures are not recognized within the VA system," said Senator Murkowski. "And we've had to work within the VA to try to push to provide a level of assistance. It would seem to me that given that the VA has granted ALS the presumption of service connection disability, there ought to be some consistency in the standards, so that these individuals that are faced with this horrid disease don't have to fight the VA to get some assistance with life extending therapies."