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My Turn: Veterans care is improving in Alaska

Posted: June 2, 2014 - 12:01am

As a retired National Guard member and Veterans Administration employee, I believe that health care for veterans should be a top priority for the federal government. Fortunately, we’ve seen a lot of improvement here in Alaska and we need to keep making progress, especially since Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state.

Many members of Congress have been trying to reduce the backlog of veterans who are signing up for heath care through the VA. For example, Senators have pushed for more VA funding to reduce the backlog nationally. Fortunately, we’ve actually seen a lot of progress here in Alaska. Our state’s VA backlog has gone down from 900 to 50—that is a huge improvement we can all be proud of.

While reducing Alaska’s VA backlog is a great accomplishment, I’m most excited about new clinics that are accessible to Alaska veterans. In the past, veterans often had to travel great distances, even out of state, to get health care. Just in the last couple years, there are at least 28 clinics that are newly accessible to Alaska veterans.

That is the result of an innovative partnership between the Veterans Administration, Indian Health Service, and other government agencies. Senator Begich proposed this partnership five years ago, and now it is a reality.

As a result of the partnership, veterans can use many IHS clinics for health care. That means veterans can get health care closer to home and avoid expensive travel bills. This partnership also is opening new clinics to veterans in urban areas like Anchorage. This kind of partnership is crucial in Alaska, where we have veterans who live across the state.

Reducing the VA backlog and opening new clinics to veterans are major improvements for Alaska, but you won’t hear about them on TV. Outside groups are spending millions of dollars in an attempt to politicize the VA backlog, and those Outsiders probably don’t even know we’re actually making progress in Alaska.

Senate candidate Dan Sullivan has joined in those attacks. He should stop using the VA for political gain and start supporting improvements that our Alaska Congressional delegation has been working on for years—maybe candidate Sullivan isn’t aware of recent improvements to the VA in Alaska, but he should be.

Republican Congressman Jeff Miller is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. He has called on Outside groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads to stop politicizing the VA. I agree with Congressman Miller. We’re making too much progress to get distracted by attack ads. Rather than more political sniping, we should have more collaboration to improve veterans’ care.

More needs to be done to reduce the VA backlog in the Lower 48, and a Senate committee has proposed expanding VA funding to get that done. If Congress can focus on veterans care like our Congressional delegation has, then I know we can reduce the VA backlog in the Lower 48 just like we have in Alaska.

• Steve Sweet is a retired Veterans Affairs employee and also retired from the National Guards. He is a volunteer for the Alaska Democratic Party and resides in the Mat-Su Borough.

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