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In visit to Alaska, VA secretary says agency must do better outreach, especially rural areas

Posted: May 31, 2011 - 8:49pm

ANCHORAGE — Veterans affairs officials must do a better job reaching out to Alaska’s military vets, especially those in remote communities where access to services is difficult, the nation’s top official for veterans’ affairs said.

Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the issue of access has a different meaning in Alaska, where many communities are off the road system.

But the issue is being addressed with a move away from large health care centers for veterans to community-based outpatient clinics and vet centers and mobile clinics, he said Monday during a visit to the state.

Shinseki said $284 million has been invested in tele-health technologies to help address the remote access problem. Under such a system, specialists could be connected via computer to veterans living in remote Alaska villages, he said.

Shinseki said he also wants to end the backlog in disability claims and eliminate veterans’ homelessness by 2015. Given the country’s wealth and power, there is no reason any vet should be homeless, he said.

Alaska has the highest concentration of veterans in the country, with 17 percent of the state population identified as veterans. About 77,000 veterans live in Alaska, according to the VA secretary.

Shinseki is in Alaska for several days at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who serves on the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees.

Shinseki spoke to hundreds of people at Fort Richardson National Cemetery on Monday. He also will be meeting with veterans in Anchorage and traveling with the senator to Bethel and the village of Kwigillingok, the Anchorage Daily News reported Tuesday.

Shinseki served as Army chief of staff from 1999 to June 2003. He clashed with then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the planning of the war in Iraq over how many troops were needed, calling for many more than Rumsfeld wanted during the postwar occupation. Some military leaders have said since then that Shinseki was right.

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