For many peninsula veterans, the strings attached to obtaining their promised medical care from the Veterans Administration is a pill they find too hard to swallow. However, a town meeting held Saturday may provide the spoonful of sugar it takes to make that medicine go down.
Area veterans met with a delegation from the VA on Saturday at the National Guard Armory in Kenai to voice their dissatisfaction with the current system of medical care. Director Alex Spector from the VA brought a staff of four to listen to the concerns in an open forum town hall meeting.
"This is the first town hall meeting the VA has ever attended," said Helen Barkley, the Disabled American Veterans Department Commander for Alaska.
Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Hal Smalley, D-Kenai, also were in attendance and expressed the position that, as public servants, they were supportive of the veterans' concerns.
The main issue under dispute is that most disabled peninsula veterans must travel to Anchorage to receive medical care. The VA must provide care for services-connected veterans, meaning they sustained some form of disability while serving in the military, said Barkley. But there is no local provider for this program, so most peninsula veterans have to board a bus and go to Anchorage.
"It's a dismal failure," said Bobby Keith, the peninsula's disabled veterans representative for the Department of Labor and a veteran injured in the Vietnam War. "I can't see having the bus system has any validity in saving the VA any money. What if a guy has a heart attack on the bus? They've already wrecked one van last winter -- we were lucky no one was killed. It's easily a 12-hour day, and we don't need to put the vets in that situation."
The Saturday meeting with the VA appeared to be a step toward solving the problem.
"My number one mission is to get everyone on the same page," said Disabled American Veterans Chapter 5 Commander Albert Hicks of Kenai. "We need local medical care without having to drive to Anchorage. Some of these vets don't have the luxury of time to wait for bureaucracy. Illness and advancing age give us a sense of urgency to make it happen now."
There are options available to attain this goal, Hicks said, including leasing a place for a clinic while other accommodations are arranged or built, or working out a co-operative plan with a local hospital.
"Right now, from what we are aware of, the ability to do this is tentatively in place," Hicks said. "We just have to have it start. We need everybody to stand behind the organization right now."
In addition to the open forum feedback, the VA delegation brought a nurse and met with the veterans on a one-on-one basis to address their individual medical care issues. On Tuesday the delegation will meet with area doctors and the CEO of the Central Peninsula General Hospital to take their views and suggestions on the situation.
"There will be some sort of VA presence in the area," Spector said in his opening remarks at the town meeting. He said their trip to Kenai was a process to "find out what form that presence should take."
The current busing system to Anchorage is run by the peninsula chapter of Disabled American Veterans. DAV is a nonprofit association chartered in 1923 and made up of more than 1 million disabled veterans. The state DAV has been in existence for 11 years, and the Kenai branch has been around for six years, Barkley said. Volunteers from this organization drive the buses that take the veterans to and from their Anchorage doctor appointments.
"There are approximately 48,000 people on the peninsula, and one out of every six is a veteran," Keith said. "Per capita, we have more vets on the peninsula than almost anywhere in the state. We don't need a clinic, we need quality care from our own doctors."
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