Sen. Dan Sullivan talks with Haines veterans at the American Legion. (Emily Files)

Sen. Dan Sullivan talks with Haines veterans at the American Legion. (Emily Files)

Alaska’s junior U.S. senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, visited constituents in Haines and Skagway for the first time since he was elected in 2014. He was in Haines Monday, where he spent time talking to veterans and members of the business community.

Sullivan’s message to local veterans was ‘we’ve got your back.’ He told about 20 vets gathered at the American Legion that if they have problems navigating the ‘giant bureaucracy’, they should get in touch with him and his staff directly.

“We can’t guarantee everything, but we can be there at your side to help you slash through the red tape and everything to make sure you know you’re not alone battling these guys.”

Sullivan lamented the problems many vets in rural communities face when working with the VA healthcare system. He referred to the 2014 Choice Act, which was supposed to help veterans get healthcare locally.

“You’ve probably seen it – the implementation in Alaska has been a total disaster.”

Sullivan said he’s worked to inform VA officials about the unique geographic challenges for Alaska vets. Sullivan asked the Haines vets whether they were able to go to the local clinic for healthcare. One responded that he was told if he wanted a flu shot, he had to go to Juneau.

Haines veteran Mike Wilson said the ongoing difficulties with VA healthcare cause vets to feel hopeless.

“If they get turned down, and turned down and turned around — the impact has to be a negative impact on the individual, which exacerbates the whole problem to begin with.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan poses with Haines veterans after an hour-long conversation. (Emily Files)

Sen. Dan Sullivan (second from left) poses with Haines veterans after an hour-long conversation. (Emily Files)

Another state healthcare problem, Sullivan said, is a lack of doctors in Alaska. He said he’s working on legislation for the VA to partner with Alaska Native Health organizations to create medical residency programs.

“‘Cause studies have shown where doctors do their residency, 60 percent of the time they end up staying in that state.”

Sullivan has also sponsored a bill would allow Native vets who served in Vietnam, or their descendants, to apply for federal land allotments. Some Alaska vets missed a deadline to apply for allotments in 1971 because they were serving in the military during the application window. Sullivan said the Obama Administration’s opposition to that bill is making it difficult to move forward.

“You have this whole group of patriotic Americans who were serving and they miss a deadline because they’re overseas…so to me that’s what’s unfair. I just think [the Obama Administration] is opposed to my bill because they don’t want more Alaskans to have more land. Well, I think more Alaskans should have more land.”

That was a common thread throughout Sullivan’s conversations with veterans at the American Legion and business leaders at a Haines Chamber of Commerce lunch: get more land out of federal control and into local or state hands.

Sullivan mentioned a mineral exploration project about 30 miles north of Haines. Constantine Mineral Resources’ Palmer Project was recently given the green light by the Federal Bureau of Land Management to expand exploration for copper, zinc, silver and gold. Sullivan wrote a letter of support for Constantine’s plan.

One resident asked how Sullivan balances the interests of mining versus protecting fisheries.

“In terms of mining and our fisheries, I wouldn’t say that there’s a conflict,” Sullivan said. “Mines need to go through a very, very, very rigorous permitting process. And if they can’t meet the standards of making sure our fisheries are protected, then they’re not gonna get permitted.”

Sullivan is a former Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner. He said most of the big mines in Alaska have ‘done very well’ meeting environmental standards.

But Sullivan said he does have concerns about the impact Canadian mines could have on Alaska fisheries. He said he’s encouraged Canadian government officials to have more ‘transparency’ about trans-boundary mines. He said it’s an issue in which Alaskans should have more of a voice.

To contact Sen. Sullivan’s office about veterans’ issues, call Josh Revak at 271-5915. For other Southeast Alaska concerns, call Connie McKenzie at 586-7277.