Representatives from the offices of U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, and Congressman Don Young were in Southeast last week to talk with locals about a variety of issues and concerns. They made a stop at the American Legion in Haines to chat to veterans about ongoing healthcare coverage concerns.
It’s been the same saga for months: Veterans say they are simply not getting the health benefits they are entitled to. And in Haines, it’s no different. According to the local American Legion, there are 300 veterans in the borough. Only around 10 of those vets showed up for a meeting last week with representatives from D.C. to get an update on, and air their grievances about the VA healthcare system.
Just under two years ago, Congress passed the Veterans Choice Law. The law was designed to allow veterans more flexibility on which providers they could see.
“That’s worked well to a certain extent down south, but then in the summer they ran out of money for that program.”
That’s Chad Padgett, the representative for Congressman Young. The Choice Program, run by TriWest Healthcare Alliance, forced Alaska veterans to deal with agents outside the state, who simply didn’t know the geographical challenges faced here.
“Not a good situation, especially for people that don’t know Alaska, Padgett said. “They were telling people, ‘oh, you live in Haines, you can just pop up to Anchorage and go to your clinic there.’ They had no idea.”
Recently a few things have changed that are supposed to make the convoluted system easier for veterans to navigate. For example, calls from Alaska are diverted to a central location where employees are trained on Alaska’s unique situation. Padgett said they are working in Washington to try and get some sort of exemption for Alaska within the Choice Program to streamline the process. The hope is that local veterans can get more of their basic care here in Haines instead of traveling to a VA provider in Juneau or Anchorage on their own dime.
John Newton is the local Legion commander. He served with the Army overseas from 1962 to 1965. He says while he’s glad representatives came to talk with local vets about their benefits, he’s not holding his breath for big changes any time soon.
“I’ve fought the battle with the VA for my personal reasons long enough,” Newton said. “They’ve won. I’ve given up. But I haven’t given up on my fellow veterans if I can help them in any way, put them in contact then I will. But, for my own personal benefits, I’m in the golden years and heading down on the other side of the mountain now.”
Newton says he has to go to Juneau, usually a multi-day trip with a couple of nights in a hotel, for regular visits. He says he’s should be able to just walk down the street to the clinic, but it doesn’t work like that. He says he’s been told repeatedly he has to make the trip to Juneau even for a simple, monthly injection.
“The old saying is that these people, the veterans, signed a blank check when they took that oath of duty and there’s not one of us that has been released of that oath of duty. So we’re still serving our country.”
While most of the veterans at the meeting didn’t want to be recorded for this story, their accounts of having to wait weeks, or even months, just to get an appointment aren’t unique to Haines. What is unique is the fact that traveling to see a VA provider requires a plane or ferry, or both.
The problem also lies with the fact that there simply aren’t enough VA providers in the state.
Padgett finished up the meeting by letting the group know that they’ll take back all the individual complaints and concerns and try to work on a solution that helps veterans get the care they need in their hometowns. When that might happen, if at all, remains to be seen. In the meantime, some vets say they’ve resorted to using their spouse’s insurance, Medicare or pay out of their own pockets.