FAIRBANKS - U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski will host a hearing today in Anchorage on the health care needs of veterans, especially those veterans returning to Alaska from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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The hearing will pay particular attention to the nearly 600 soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 297th Infantry of the Alaska National Guard. Those soldiers recently returned to the state after a yearlong deployment in Kuwait and southern Iraq. Many are Alaska Natives from rural villages.
Earlier this year, Murkowski toured health care facilities around the state to assess what care is available for returning veterans.
"I'm concerned that those rural Alaskans have the ability to receive the level of care they have earned," said Murkowski, who is the vice chairwoman of the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs.
As long as they are on active duty, the health care needs of soldiers are paid for by the Department of Defense. Once they are discharged, however, it is handled by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Complicating matters is the fact that VA services are not available in Bush villages and the agency usually will not pay for transportation to hub cities such as Fairbanks or Anchorage. Many Alaska veterans instead receive care provided by Native corporations.
Murkowski's involvement sparked a memo of understanding between the VA and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She is optimistic that today's hearing will expose any problems with the agreement.
"I'm hopeful that we can identify holes or places that are not providing services and shine a light on that," Murkowski said.
Nationally, about 15 percent of vets returning from Iraq or Afghanistan require some kind of mental health care for an issue such as post-traumatic stress disorder, said Alex Spector, director of the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
Not many members of the 297th were in combat situations, but there is still the stress of being away from family members for a long period of time.
It's difficult to say what their needs might be, he said.
"It's hard to predict," Spector said. "We're learning this as the war goes on."
Valerie Davidson, senior director of legal and intergovernmental affairs for the tribal health consortium, is also scheduled to testify today. Another issue in providing care for Alaska Native veterans, she says, is "cultural adjustment."
"We know it's a challenge to come back from active duty for the average American or the average Alaskan, being from a small traditional community where English may not be your first language and going to Afghanistan or Iraq can be even more difficult," she said.