The nation's top official for veterans affairs told reporters in Anchorage on Memorial Day that his agency can and must do a better job of reaching military veterans.
Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, is in Alaska for several days at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. He spoke to a crowd of hundreds Monday at Fort Richardson National Cemetery.
During his time here, he's meeting with veterans in Anchorage. And he's traveling with Begich, a Democrat from Anchorage who is on both the Armed Services and Veterans Affairs committees, to Bethel and the village of Kwigillingok.
Shinseki noted that Alaska has the highest concentration of veterans in the country, with 17 percent of the state population identified as such. Some 77,000 veterans live in Alaska.
Shinseki is a retired Army general who 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 several hundred thousand soldiers during postwar occupation, many more than Rumsfeld wanted. Some military leaders have said since then that Shinseki was right.
Reporters were given a few minutes on Monday to ask Shinseki questions. Here are his answers, edited slightly for space and clarity:
Q: Have you heard or seen anything about Alaska veterans that surprises you?
A: Not sure that I'm surprised but I'm always reminded that in our remote communities, our rural communities ... there are places in Alaska here that there are no roads.
So access has a different definition. We have to think about how to solve that. ... Maybe surprised about the severity of what remote and rural really means when you get to a place like this.
Q: Access to health care has been a big problem for Alaska veterans particularly those in rural Alaska. How soon will veterans in rural Alaska see better access to health care?
A: We started out as very much focused on large health care centers, large hospitals. We have 153 of them today. But over the past probably two decades we began to go from "here we are, our hospitals, come to us" to a system of hospitals with community-based outpatient clinics and vet centers and mobile clinics. And so the whole process of delivering health care has gone from "come to us" to a push of those services and benefits out into communities where veterans live.
The reach is a little more challenging when it's remote and rural but that's part of the reason why we're here. We think telehealth, telemedicine -- the power of that microprocessor -- is likely to be the next major health care delivery change in this century. And we will see more of that. We've invested the last two years about $284 million in telehealth technologies so that we can connect a specialist wherever they are in our system, whether it's in San Francisco or here in Anchorage, with a veteran who is in a remote village.
Q: How does Alaska stack up when compared to other states in terms of veterans services?
A: I think Alaska fares well in terms of the basic services and benefits we provide. But again the rural and remote aspects of this -- and Sen. Begich reminds me that it's something unique here, to Alaska -- and so delivering health care benefits and services, you have to pay attention to the details of what's unique about Alaska. And that's part of the reason we are going to Bethel and Kwig.
(Begich spoke up at this point about why he wants to be sure high level federal officials like Shinseki get out to rural Alaska when they visit the state.)
Begich: It's critical that they go to a hub like Bethel and then to a real village like Kwig so they get the full picture and spectrum. When we're back (in D.C.) and they're testifying and I say unique and different and/or extreme rural, they get it.
Q: Veterans now account for one in every five suicides in the nation. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco just ordered a major overhaul of your agency, saying "the VA's unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough." How do you respond to such strong criticism and alarming numbers? What is the VA doing?
A: My response is that any ... veteran suicide is something that concerns us. Part of our challenge is to understand exactly the fact you stated, one in five. ... Trying to be sure we have good data is important.
Needless to say this ruling is something we have focused on. Frankly, there isn't much I can say at this point. The good folks at Department of Justice are deciding what the next step is. For me right now is to wait and see what's going to happen.
Q: Do you have any strategies of ways you want to address this, to better help the veterans, to identify their problems earlier on?
A: Certainly. Very little of what we do in VA originates in VA. Much of what we do is closely aligned with Department of Defense. I think if you'll go back to October of 2009 you'll see that both DoD and VA sat down and held a mental health summit in which we brought our practitioners in to sort of lay out for ourselves how we ensure that the transition of youngsters who are having issues are clearly identified and as they transition to us that we are able to ensure there's no break in the continuity of care.
Q: What's your goal in coming to Alaska?
A: Basically three key priorities. One is the one I mentioned here and that's expanding access so that veterans who are entitled to care and benefits from the VA 1) know about it, 2) know how to acquire it, and 3) get smoothly through the system.
The second goal is to end this disability claims backlog that's been around for years. It's frustrating to all of us. We've put in place some key pilots that we expect by May of 2012 we're going to see the results of our investments ... and we'll begin to take down the backlog. Our intent is to eliminate the backlog by 2015.
And then third priority is to end veterans' homelessness by 2015. A few years ago, I said in five years. Well, the clock's moved. So by 2015 we intend to have solved the issue of veterans' homelessness. As the president says, there's no reason in this great and powerful country, wealthy country of ours, why any veteran should be living homeless.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER