ANCHORAGE - Thousands of veterans living in rural Alaska have no access to standard health care from the Veterans Administration, according to testimony at a congressional hearing last week.
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The longstanding problem has returned to the fore as injured veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Some of our returning troops from Vietnam survived the bullets of the other side - only to be killed by the bullets of red tape," said Alaska Federation of Natives vice president Nelson Angapak, who served in the military during the Vietnam War. "The VA has absolutely no presence in rural Alaska. Absolutely none."
There are about 6,000 Alaska Native veterans statewide, most of whom live far from the road system and from standard VA health care in Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Kenai Peninsula.
Some rural veterans have to pay as much as $1,000 to fly from their villages to Anchorage and back simply to get a check-up, said 1st Sgt. John Flynn, a member of the Alaska Army National Guard unit based in Bethel.
The VA is trying hard to change that situation, said Alexander Spector, director of the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
His agency recently signed a memo of understanding with the state to ensure "seamless delivery of health care services to rural veterans" in Alaska, including the creation of mobile outreach teams.
More money has been appropriated to pay for transportation from rural areas, Spector said. Currently, those payments are only available to certain disabled veterans who earn less than $12,000 a year.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she thought it would be "prudent" for the VA to partner with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and urged Spector to communicate that need to other high officials in the VA system.
"We need them to get the picture," Murkowski said, "so we can get the funding."
The consortium runs 180 small village health centers around the state, said director Valerie Davidson.
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