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Historic deal provides veterans health care in Alaska Bush

Alex DeMarban
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Veterans health care will come to rural Alaska thanks to an unprecedented accord between the Department of Veterans Affairs and tribal health organizations.

"What's remarkable about this is that it's the first agreement of its kind in the nation," said Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, a veteran with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. "Alaska's tribal health corporations will lead the way in developing this new path for veterans in remote areas."

Per-capita, Alaska has the highest number of veterans in the nation. But 13 percent don't live within reach of a Veterans Affairs clinic.

The historic memorandum of understanding inked between Alaska Veteran Affairs and 14 regional tribal health programs across the state means veterans in villages and remote hubs such as Bethel can get services by walking across the dirt road to their village clinic, according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Mark Begich.

Previously, they had to spend money and leave work to fly to veterans clinics that exist only in Juneau or road-system communities such as Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski also lauded the agreement and said she's been working hard on improving veteran services. "I convened a field hearing five years ago spotlighting where improvements needed be made, inserted language into legislation authorizing the VA to reimburse the Alaska Native health system for rural veterans' care, and at last year's AFN I stayed at the Veteran's listening session until the last Alaskan shared their story," she said in a prepared statement.

Herron said the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. will provide health care for Native and non-Native veterans in more than 50 villages in the Bethel region. He called the new system a huge advantage for the numerous veterans in his region, some of which need treatment for injuries that range from the "physical to the unseen," including brain-related injuries, he said.

Other participating health care programs include the Arctic Slope Native Association on the North Slope, the Tanana Chiefs Conference in the Interior, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium in Southeast and Southcentral Foundation in Anchorage.

Begich called the deal a first step in his effort "to allow Alaska's veterans living in rural communities to save time and money by receiving care close to home whenever possible."

The agreement will ensure that the VA reimburses tribal health consortiums for costs incurred when vets receive services there.

The effort stems from years of effort that preceded Begich, including a 2008 trip to the Southwest Alaska village of Quinhagak. The late Sen. Ted Stevens dragged along then-Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake for a look at the challenges faced by veterans in the Bush.

Peake heard stories from soldiers who returned from Iraq service and were forced to travel to Anchorage for dental work and basic services such as physical exams. Stevens told the veterans he wanted Veterans Affairs to pay the tribal health consortiums to provide veteran care locally.

Begich, who in 2008 replaced Stevens in the U.S. Senate, has fought for improved services as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. He wants to create a new program that gives veterans a card they can present to receive veteran-care services at any hospital or clinic. 

Participating health corporations also include Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Chickaloon Village Traditional Council, Chugachmiut, Copper River Native Association, Eastern Aleutian Tribes, Inc., Ketchikan Indian Community, Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Kodiak Area Native Association and Native Village of Eklutna.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com