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Murkowski presses for more specialty care in Alaska for VA patients

Posted: April 2, 2011 - 10:13pm
Dr. Paul Maas is the new full-time doctor at the Juneau Veterans Affairs Outreach Clinic in the Federal Building.   Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Dr. Paul Maas is the new full-time doctor at the Juneau Veterans Affairs Outreach Clinic in the Federal Building.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski is pressing the Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee to reduce the need to send veterans to Seattle for care.

Murkowski is not satisfied with the number of veterans who must travel to the VA hospital in Seattle for specialty care needs. She questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and the VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel about making more such care available in the state.

“I think there are more things that can be done. You have my promise we are going to look much more carefully at being able to provide more of the care in the community. There will be an occasional thing where it might be in the veteran’s best interest to travel outside Alaska for care. We will do a better job in looking for alternatives in the community,” Petzel told the senator.

According to a press release, Shinseki said the VA is currently paying $4 billion a year for veteran care that cannot be delivered in VA facilities, saying, “We do have the ability to refer patients to civilian healthcare in communities where we’re not able provide it. I will work with Dr. Petzel to set some objectives and let’s go and work at them.” He added that budget might go up in the 2012-2013 timeframe.

Alaska VA officials state Murkowski’s battle refers to specialty care, such as orthopedics and neurology. They said that primary care is maintained within the state while specialty needs patients are mostly referred outside when the clinics don’t have the specialists or resources to treat them. Juneau’s VA Outreach Clinic, which opened in the fall, is an example of this since it provides primary and mental health care but not specialty care.

Alex Spector, director of the VA health care system, said Southeast Alaska patient referrals are often sent to Seattle because it’s the easiest location to get to.

“The Alaska VA continues to work with Washington VA officials in looking at needs of our veterans for health care in our state and specialty health care outside the state,” said Spector.

Spector said that specialty inpatient care referrals in 2009 included 17 orthopedic patients, 10 neurology patients and nine neurosurgery patients.

Alaska VA Public Affairs Officer Marcia Hoffman-DeVoe said Juneau’s VA outreach clinic is an example of Alaska’s ability to provide primary and mental health care locally. Dr. Paul Maas recently came onboard there as its new full-time primary care provider.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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