VA says it’s improving in Alaska; Murkowski calls it ‘chaos’

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo: KTOO - Juneau.)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo: KTOO – Juneau.)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told a top VA official this morning that she’s still hearing disaster stories about the Choice program. And, she says, some Alaska vets who used Choice to get medical appointments in the private sector now find collection agencies are after them because the VA hasn’t paid their claims.

VA undersecretary David Shulkin says his agency is doing a better job now, at least compared to last summer, when he visited the state and got an earful.

“Currently 96 percent of all appointments are scheduled within 30 days in Alaska,” he said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing today.

In 120 cases, Shulkin says, veterans seeking urgent consultations through the Choice program have been kept waiting longer than 30 days.

They’re all scheduled, but that’s too long, and that’s what we’re working with TriWest to fix,” he said, referring to the contractor Alaskans have to go through to get health care through the Choice program.

Alaska vets say Choice ruined a workable system. Before it launched across the country last year, when Alaskans wanted to health care outside the VA, the VA would make an appointment for them, nice and simple. Now, many say they can’t get through to TriWest to get the appointments they need, or something goes wrong in the multi-step process TriWest requires.

But Shulkin says they’ve made adjustments to serve Alaskans. The undersecretary says they’re trying to reduce the role of TriWest.

“(Choice) is still is somewhat problematic,” he said, “and that why we’re continuing to ask for a contract modification, so the VA can take over the scheduling of those patients — very similar to what you had before — and we’re  waiting for that contract modification to be approved.”

Sen. Murkowski pounced, saying Shulkin is underplaying the frustrations.

“And your term ‘somewhat problematic’ is not what I’m hearing from our veterans,” she said. “They are saying it is fouled up. It is screwed up. It is a mess. And it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable because we know how to correct it. Because we corrected it. And then you come in and you create chaos.”

Murkowski says in some respects the situation is worse.

“Now what we’re getting, the letters I’m getting from vets, are saying, ‘My bills are being sent to collections agencies when the VA doesn’t pay.’”

According to a story in Military Times, vets around the country are seeing their credit ruined because they got medical service through Choice and the VA isn’t paying the bills on time. The publication says the VA is worse at paying claims within 30 days when compared to other government insurance programs, such as Tricare and Medicare.

Murkowski says another problem with Choice is that Alaska’s medical specialists don’t like it. Alaska doesn’t have enough medical specialists to start with, Murkowski says, and fewer than ever are willing to see veterans.

“Specialists who were willing to take the Choice card are now telling me they don’t want to have anything to do with the hassle,” the senator said. “Nothing at all.”

Shulkin acknowledged that Alaska had a model system before, and he said they’re trying to get back to it. But the undersecretary pointed out, the new system wasn’t the VA’s idea.

“This was the Choice program. This was Congress’ program, that we are trying to make work,” he said.

He called it “unacceptable” that vets are being hounded by bill collectors for unpaid medical services. He says the VA has established a special hotline vets can call to get intervention. The number is (877)881-7618.

But call before 1 p.m. Alaska time, or you’ll hear this: “Thank you for calling the Department of Veterans affairs. We are currently closed. Our normal hours of business are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mountain time.”


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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at