Rural veterans get upgrade to healthcare options
Young or old, Native or not, Veteran or non-military, access to health services is simply more complicated in Alaska than in other locales. It's not uncommon to hop a plane or a boat, or several of those, to receive care that people in other U.S. locations need only motor a few miles to get.
A recent collaboration between the Eastern Aleutians Tribes and the Department of Veterans Affairs marks a historical attempt to ease the transportation challenges rural veterans face. The agreement allows patients to receive their VA covered healthcare at local clinics.
"It's going to have a tremendous affect on patient care," said EAT Director Michael Christensen.
The organization maintains clinics in Cold Bay, Akutan, False Pass, Nelson Lagoon, Adak, King Cove, Sand Point and Whittier.
"We're the only health care in those locations," Christensen said. "Up until about two months ago if I was a veteran of any war and I was eligible for veterans benefits and I needed to have a blood draw, for example, I was required to only do that in a veterans administration facility."
Should that individual live in, let's say Akutan, that blood draw would require a small plane to Dutch, a larger aircraft to Anchorage, a taxi to the hospital, and whatever accommodations required for the stay before turning around and making the entire trip again.
This is an immediate boon to non-Native residents, who may not have access to any alternative healthcare, but also to those covered by Indian Health Services, Christensen said.
Even with access to IHS, certain vision, dental and hearing needs may not be covered. With easier access to their veteran's benefits, those needs can be covered with local and visiting providers at EAT clinics.
"We believe," he said, "that there have been a number of veterans that have unmet medical needs just because of the hassle of having it met."
This could include appropriate eye glasses, access to regular diabetic check ups, substance abuse treatment and more.
The new program has been in motion for 60 days now, and people are slowly beginning to take advantage of it.
"Alaska Native veterans tell me all the time they'd rather receive health care at the clinic across the street in their village than spend money and time traveling hundreds or thousands of miles to a VA clinic," said Sen. Mark Begich in a release. "This is truly a great step toward ensuring all of Alaska's veterans can receive the care they need, when they need it, and in the most cost-effective and timely way."
Begich sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee and praised the deal — signed with EAT and 13 other tribal organizations — as a historic move.
Senator Lisa Murkowski joined Begich in commending the agreement.
"Coming from rural Alaska didn't keep thousands of Alaskans from serving their country, and Alaska's veteran community should not be kept from the medical care they need because of geography," Sen. Murkowski said. "From my first day in the U.S. Senate, ensuring that veterans are not disenfranchised from their earned VA benefits by reason of geography has been a core priority. Local care for rural Alaska veterans does not mean care in Anchorage. It means care close to home when it is available."
Christensen believes there are about 400 veterans in the service area EAT covers.
The struggle now, he said, is to first get word out about the new availability.
"The other thing that we're doing is some training with our people so they become knowledgeable about the process to apply for and become approved for veterans benefits."
Christensen believes there are a number of Aleutian residents that qualify for benefits, but haven't registered for them.
"Many of these people who are eligible, who served valiantly in the military, have earned the opportunity to have those benefits, they just need to get enrolled," Christensen said.
Those eligible for services include veterans, veteran's dependents, the surviving spouse, child or parent of a deceased veteran, a uniformed service member, or a present or former reservist or National Guard member. To access VA-covered care through EAT clinics, you must enrolled with the Veterans Health Administration.
Forms to apply for services can be found online at www.1010ez.med.va.gov. There is also more information and Internet access at all of the EAT clinic locations.
Though the new program doesn't change much as far as administration in the tribal organization, Christensen said he and other EAT staff are pleased to be offering their residents access to care on their home turf.