ANCHORAGE — Veterans began filtering into the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center this month as part of a recent deal with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to ease medical access.
The overrun Alaska VA Healthcare System sends about 25 new patients to the Midtown health clinic each week, a routine that started March 17, officials said. The clinic is prepping for nearly 2,000 veterans during the next year, said Kimberly Cohen, the executive director of the health clinic. “We’re fine because we have the physical capacity to expand,” she said.
The clinic, on C Street, currently has about 14,700 active patients and will serve as the primary care provider for the veterans, in place of the Alaska VA Healthcare System. For now, two main doctors, who specialize in family medicine, and a physician’s assistant will handle the new case load, referring veterans out for speciality care, Cohen said.
Over at the Alaska VA, the administration is struggling with a shortage of physicians, one factor behind the new partnership, said Samuel Hudson, spokesman of the Alaska VA Healthcare System.
Alaska has one of the fastest growing veteran populations in the country and has long been the state with the most veterans per capita. More than 71,000 veterans lived in Alaska in 2012, according to U.S. Census data.
To serve the veteran population, the VA has health clinics in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kenai, Juneau and Wasilla. “If we have the ability or physicians here, then the veterans will be seen here,” Hudson said. But at least three of the clinics currently have open positions, and upcoming retirements will increase that number, he said.
The VA is actively recruiting doctors, Hudson said. Until more are hired, partnerships will fill the gap, he said. The VA already has contracts with Providence Alaska Medical Center and the Southcentral Foundation. About 350 veterans have been treated at Providence since last year, said Ginger Houghton, a hospital spokeswoman.
Last year, the Alaska VA Healthcare System was backed up. Its electronic waiting list of veterans who wanted to enroll in VA health care neared 900, Hudson said. The offices of both of Sen. Mark Begich and Sen. Lisa Murkowski fielded complaints daily from veterans waiting to see doctors, representatives of the senators said.
Begich said in a prepared statement that he called a committee meeting in the Senate to discuss the backlog. Soon after, the state’s VA started partnering with local medical providers, paying the facilities for veterans’ care. It had already signed an agreement with tribal health programs in 2012 to provide care to veterans in rural Alaska.
“I’m glad to see that the VA found a reasonable and workable solution to deal with the immediate crisis at hand until they are able to recruit more doctors to serve Alaska’s growing veteran population,” Begich said,
Hudson said there is no longer a wait list for veterans seeking primary care. Once veterans enroll in VA health care, they are either assigned to a doctor at the Alaska VA Healthcare System or at one of the system’s partners, a decision based on the individual’s health needs, Hudson said.
Cohen said the clinic will not treat combat veterans and will likely see “baby boomers or people in their 40s.” She also expects a group of veterans who spend summers in Alaska to be treated at the center.