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Alaska VA moves nurse practitioner to short-handed Wasilla clinic

Tegan Hanlon

The Alaska VA Healthcare System has moved a nurse practitioner from Anchorage to Wasilla to treat patients at the Mat-Su VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic, a staff-strapped facility that Sen. Lisa Murkowski has flagged for investigation by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  

Three contracted physicians were servicing the more than 1,200 patients at the Wasilla clinic, but their contracts expired June 27, July 10 and Aug. 28. Each had the option to stay, but none elected to do so, said Samuel Hudson, spokesman for the Alaska VA. 

The clinic's only permanent physician resigned this spring, a loss publicly lamented by some veterans at a community meeting hosted by Murkowski in July to discuss VA health care.

Nurse practitioner Josephine McCaskill began working in Wasilla on Wednesday "until further notice," Hudson said. 

"We are still actively and aggressively recruiting for two providers at the Mat-Su CBOC," he said.

The VA has posted an ad on usajobs.gov seeking two full-time physicians for Wasilla with an annual salary of $97,987 to $195,000. The application period opened Jan. 3, 2014, it says.

The employee hunt is not limited to the Wasilla facility. Online VA postings for Anchorage call for a physician assistant, registered nurse, medical instrument technician, radiologic technologists and multiple physicians and registered nurses, according to the federal government's job list.  

This month, President Barack Obama signed off on a $16.3 billion bill to overhaul the VA. The new law included billions of dollars for recruiting additional staff, but it remains unclear how much of that money will go to the Alaska VA.

Meanwhile, to alleviate patient wait times, the Alaska VA has funneled veterans to outside health centers since 2012, including 26 Alaska Native health organizations and, most recently, the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center.

Hudson estimated the Wasilla clinic sends 50 or so veterans each week to Southcentral Foundation for primary care. As of Friday, 776 veterans had been assigned to the Alaska Native-owned nonprofit, he said. 

He said McCaskill's patient list still has more than 1,000 names.

Matthew Felling, a spokesman for Murkowski, wrote in an email Friday that the VA Office of Inspector General has started its investigation into the Wasilla clinic's operational practices. Murkowski had asked in June for a report on the facility.

"Senator Murkowski is pleased that the nurse practitioner will provide relief in the near term to the Mat-Su clinic but will continue to press the VA for ... a sustainable solution that addresses why the CBOC has been unable to find physicians that will stay long-term and not only treat the patients but become a member of the community," Felling wrote.

In line with VA Secretary Robert McDonald's nationwide order, the Alaska VA will hold a town hall meeting at Z.J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage from 5 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 16.