An Arizona-based company that manages health benefits for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday it's bringing six new employees to Alaska to help get veterans' medical appointments scheduled and doctors' bills paid.
"By having this staff based in Alaska we will demonstrate our commitment to Alaskan providers and gain their trust," said Hal Blair, deputy program manager of the Arizona company, TriWest Healthcare Alliance.
At an Anchorage news conference, Blair said the new team will provide in-person and over-the-phone help for Alaska's veterans and health care providers who must navigate the federal Choice Program, which was partly modeled on an earlier system in Alaska. The national Choice Program is supposed to increase health care access for veterans across the country in the wake of a national scandal over backlogs and wait times.
When Congress passed the Choice Act in summer 2014, the Alaska VA was already doing much of what it mandated, like paying private health clinics for veterans' care or using the federally funded Native health care system when the VA didn't have the capacity to treat veterans.
At a U.S. Senate committee field hearing this summer, Alaska's veterans had harsh words for the Choice Program, saying it added another bureaucratic layer to health care access. Instead of booking an appointment through the VA, veterans had to call out-of-state TriWest employees who, they said, did not always understand the landscape of the state. They experienced long wait times and disconnected phone calls.
Sen. Dan Sullivan called the Choice Program an "unmitigated failure" at the summer hearing and said it "essentially blew up" the state's VA health care system. In October, Sullivan announced that TriWest would dedicate staff to work virtually with the Alaska VA and send seven of its staffers to Alaska by mid-November.
Dr. Linda Boyle, Alaska VA interim director, said that to bring up staff, the VA had to modify its contract with TriWest, which didn't happen until November. TriWest has a contract with the VA to establish the Choice Program in 28 states, including Alaska.
Five TriWest workers arrived in Alaska over the weekend and began work on Monday, said Samuel Hudson, Alaska VA spokesman. A sixth staff member, once hired, will work in Fairbanks assisting with claims, he said.
Boyle said two of the new six employees will be stationed at the Alaska VA in Anchorage to help veterans with claim problems. Two will travel and help health care providers with claims. Another will oversee the TriWest staff in Alaska.
"I think it will make a big difference," Boyle said.
Blair said the staff from TriWest will work closely with the staff from the VA to ensure veterans can get timely appointments. He said TriWest is paying for the salaries of the additional workers and the change in the contract will not require additional government funding.
TriWest has already set up a similar local hub in New Orleans, Blair said. After Anchorage, Dallas is next on the list. In other areas, TriWest has teams working across regions, he said.
Alaska's congressional delegation said in statements Tuesday that they are cautiously optimistic about the additional staff in the state, though noting that it's only one step toward fixing veterans' problems with health care.
Sullivan said in a statement that he hopes the additional staff in Alaska will help with veterans' scheduling issues, calling it an "encouraging, albeit small first step, and just the first of many reforms needed to ensure that our veterans get the care they deserve and have earned."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski called the Choice Program an "unmitigated disaster for Alaska's veterans," in a statement Tuesday. "The decision to place staff in Alaska is a step in the right direction but it's results that count and time will tell whether they are achieved," she said.