Traveling by plane, boat, taxi or all the above for basic health care needs is not uncommon for people who reside on the remote islands and extreme edges of Alaska, reported The Bristol Bay Times.
But a first-time collaboration between 14 tribal health organizations and the Department of Veterans Affairs makes health care much more accessible for rural veterans—as well as veterans' dependents, surviving spouses, uniformed service members, or present or former reservists or National Guard members. Through the agreement, patients can receive their veterans assistance (VA) at numerous local health care clinics, rather than commuting to veterans clinics that exist only in Juneau or road-system communities such as Anchorage and Fairbanks.
"What's remarkable about this is that it's the first agreement of its kind in the nation," Rep. Bob Herron (D-Bethel), a veteran with the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, told the Alaska Dispatch. "Alaska's tribal health corporations will lead the way in developing this new path for veterans in remote areas."
The arrangement has been in effect for more than two months now, and more people are starting to take advantage of it. Not only does the new service cut down on round-trip transportation time and costs, but also the cost of accommodations required for the stay.
Native veterans covered by Indian Health Services (IHS) will greatly benefit from the collaboration, because certain vision, dental and hearing needs may not be covered through IHS, Michael Christensen, director of the Eastern Aleutians Tribes (EAT), a participating health corporation, told the Times. But through veteran's benefits, they can receive specialized care at nearby clinics.
"We believe that there have been a number of veterans that have unmet medical needs just because of the hassle of having it met," Christensen said, pointing to having appropriate eye glasses, access to regular diabetic check ups, substance abuse treatment and more.
The American Indian and Alaska Native Veteran population in the U.S. is currently estimated at 200,000, said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki in a press release in April. Per-capita, Alaska is home to the highest number of veterans in the nation, reported the Dispatch. But 13 percent of Alaska veterans don't reside with reasonable reach of a VA clinic.
"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," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee, said 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."
Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also commended 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."
Application forms for veteran's services can be found at www.1010ez.med.va.gov.