Veterans Affairs secretary pledges help for Alaska vets

Posted: Sunday, April 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The man in charge of veterans affairs in the United States said strategies are in the works to give Alaska veterans access to federal or state veterans homes.

''We need to expand, start the planning process,'' said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Tony Principi at the annual convention of Alaska's department of Disabled American Veterans.

Principi, a cabinet-level appointee in the Bush administration, was joined by U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, who invited him to speak at a series of veterans functions this weekend.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, like Murkowski, a candidate for governor, and Gov. Tony Knowles addressed veterans Friday.

''It is ironic that Alaska, which has more veterans per capita than 48 other states, is the only one that doesn't have a veterans home, either in place or under construction,'' Knowles said in a statement to the disabled veterans group. ''To me, that is unconscionable.''

Currently, veterans can get health care at outpatient clinics in Anchorage, Wasilla and Kenai, said Jim Mayo, a past commander of the disabled veterans' Alaska department. Because of the state's isolation, the VA also covers a wider range of private medical care than in other states, Mayo said.

Veterans here are pushing for a two-pronged solution: adding a VA component to the Pioneers' Home system for veterans 65 and older, and a new VA home for younger veterans.

''Make sure we leave no vet uncovered,'' Mayo said.

In the Lower 48, veterans can access VA nursing homes or state-run homes that receive VA funding, Principi said before his speech.

''In Alaska, we have neither,'' he said.

The VA agreed in a memorandum signed with the state to seek ways to support veterans in Pioneers' Homes while preserving the state's oversight, according to a statement from the governor's office.

Knowles has introduced a package of veterans bills, including a centerpiece that would create an Alaska Pioneers' and Veterans' Home system.

Alaska's veterans this weekend also urged officials to resolve problems associated with a backlog of 600,000 VA claims nationwide that leaves some veterans waiting a year or more for resolution.

In Alaska, the VA started turning over some claims to Utah for processing to better handle the load. Some vets Saturday complained that the out-of-state processing is causing even more problems.

Principi, a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, served as Murkowski's staff director when the senator chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in 1985-86.

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