Alaska News

Pilot program launched at Alaska VA aims to fix Choice Program

A pilot program has launched within the Alaska Veterans Affairs Healthcare System that aims to revert the process of scheduling medical appointments to how it was before the implementation of the Choice Program, the office of Sen. Dan Sullivan said Wednesday.

Alaska veterans who want to schedule appointments will no longer have their calls routed to Outside employees of TriWest Healthcare Alliance, the Arizona-based company hired to run the massive nationwide Choice Program, said Mike Anderson, Sullivan's press secretary. Instead, veterans will speak directly with Alaska VA staff like they used to do, Anderson said.

"Senator Sullivan has heard from numerous Alaskan vets who would like to see things 'go back to the way they were before choice,'" Anderson said in an email. "Senator Sullivan is hopeful that this change will improve upon what Alaska used to have, and in the end give veterans more choices over their healthcare."

The announcement of the pilot program came Tuesday at a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, Anderson said. In a video clip of the meeting, Dr. Thomas Lynch, a VA assistant deputy undersecretary, said the pilot program will roll out in two phases. First, TriWest will dedicate staff to work virtually with the Alaska VA. That has already been done, he said. By mid-November, the company will station seven of its staffers in Alaska.

"They are moving as quickly as possible. They want this almost as bad as you do," Lynch said to Sullivan at the hearing. Sullivan interjected.

"I doubt it," Sullivan said. He then added, "No, maybe they do and that's great."

The announcement follows a Senate committee field hearing held by Sullivan in Eagle River in August. At the meeting, veterans and health officials lambasted the Choice Program, which was supposed to increase health care access and was partly modeled on the state's system. But some said the new program only tangled Alaska's health care system and added another bureaucratic layer to getting appointments scheduled and bills paid.

Anderson explained Wednesday how Alaska VA officials are handling the appointment process. First, they are assigning veterans to VA facilities. If there is no availability there, they will try Department of Defense or Indian Health Service facilities, then Choice providers and next non-Choice providers, he said.

Alaska VA spokesman Samuel Hudson said officials were not available Wednesday to comment on the pilot program.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.