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Begich Touts Alaskan VA Care

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Sen. Mark Begich
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US Senator Mark Begich discussed several successes in improving health care for Alaska veterans Thursday while supporting a more comprehensive veterans’ health bill.  KDLG’s Chase Cavanaugh has more.

Senator Mark Begich took to the Senate floor Thursday to voice his support for the Veterans Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014.  It was passed by the Senate Wednesday in a 93-3 vote.  While the act includes penalties for falsifying waitlists, it also features measures to expand care that were first successful in Alaska.  Begich says they involve combining Veterans Affairs care with those of the Indian Health Service.

"Why not figure out how to maximize our public resources for the betterment of not only our Alaska natives but our veterans in Alaska. So we worked out an idea that today, we now have agreements with 21+ tribes. All these black dots on this map show the new areas that veterans can access health care if they want. It's just another choice. It's not a requirement but if they want to stay in their region, stay close to their home, be part of their own health care system there, they can, and the VA will reimburse them, reimburse the clinic so it's no money out of the pocket of the Indian Health Service or tribes that deliver health care."

Alaska does not have a dedicated veterans affairs hospital, so without this collaboration, veterans would have had to travel to distant cities such as Anchorage or even Seattle.  Begich says these measures have reduced Alaskan wait times considerably. 

"Before we had all this integrated system.....it used to be a thousand people, almost a thousand people on the waiting list. Today, a few dozen. This changes, this fluctuates. Don't get me wrong, so when people call me and say "that's not 10, it's 50 or it's 5," it does fluctuate, but it's no longer the thousand. In the wait period in the audit that was just done, on 140 facilities that they audited throughout the country, we, Alaska, our VA was tied for first in the best response in regards to appointments on the waiting lists, cause that was the big debate."

Finally, Begich says the collaboration has helped make the service cost-effective.

"They can provide the health care per-patient at a cheaper rate. No disrespect to the private doctors that are out there and we contract with. They're just more expensive cause they work in a different model, a different business model. That's understandable, but this is a more cost effective way. So hopefully, by passing the bill, we don't just say we've passed the bill and we're done, but six months from now or a year from now, we review the costs of delivering this healthcare, to make sure we're getting the most cost-benefit, but also delivering quality care for our vets no matter where they live."

Measures in the new bill include enhanced collaboration between the VA and Indian Health Service, as well as giving veterans more choice in choosing their provider at DoD, Federally Qualified, or IHS health centers.  It now goes to a conference committee to iron out differences with its House counterpart.