A listening session held Thursday night in Wasilla by the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs was dominated by complaints about the healthcare system for veterans. The VA is struggling in Alaska to rebuild trust as policy changes unfold from Washington, D.C. all the way to the state’s most remote clinics.
On the green AstroTurf soccer field at Wasilla’s Menard Sports Center, a crowd of hundreds — mostly older — turned out to talk about the VA.
“Obviously the Department of Veterans Affairs had a crisis,” said Secretary Robert McDonald from a stage, not using notes or a script as he gave an overview of the massive problems hampering service in recent years. “The primary reason, as I looked at this situation, was the aging of the American Veteran population.”
There are more veterans coming on the rolls, and also more recognition of ailments like post-traumatic stress, Agent Orange exposure and Hepatitis C from Vietnam-era blood transfusions. Just as needs are ballooning, there’s a compounding shortage of staff.
“We didn’t have enough doctors or nurses,” McDonald said of when he took over. “When I first testified in front of Congress I said ‘I need to hire 28,000 medical professionals nationally.’”
Staffing concerns have been an issue in Alaska–particularly at the nearby Mat-Su Valley outpatient clinic.
At the heart of the crisis, according to McDonald, are Congressional budgets that cap spending on veteran health. But where to lay blame for such enormous problems was one of the many things the crowd pushed back against.
“One hour, with all of us? Come on, let’s get real,” said retired Air Force Sergeant Mike Kuntz ahead of a heated exchange with McDonald.
“I thank Dan Sullivan for making you come up here,” Kuntz said.
“Wait, wait, wait, let’s be clear: nobody made me come here,” McDonald shot back.
“Dan Sullivan had a lot to do with it,” Kuntz replied.
“No he didn’t. He had nothing to do with it,” McDonald said, before the subject moved on.
Testimony was overwhelmingly critical of the VA, filled with stories of personal misfortune and professional misconduct — some stretching back decades.
James Perkins is a recent vet from the 10th Mountain Division, and drove up from his home on the Kenai Peninsula to explain that in spite of efforts to overhaul the system in Alaska and across the country, it’s still vastly inadequate measured against the need.
“I’ve lost over six brothers that I’ve served with, in less than a year, to suicide. And I’ve almost been a victim of veteran suicide myself,” Perkins said. “The struggle is real.”
Stories of suicide, over-medication, and VA staffers too overworked or indifferent to help received cheers of agreement from the audience.
Army veteran Joe Oswald Jr. began his fiery remarks noting that many local veterans are afraid to raise problems they’ve experienced.
“Me speaking here is going to get me retaliation from VA,” Oswald said. “And VA is part of the reason veterans commit suicide — because they suggest suicide. And nobody is addressing it, sir, everybody is just passing the buck and hoping you go away.”
As Secretary McDonald listened, he would periodically refer people to VA staffers set up at tables in the back of the event.
Scott Harrison is a Marine Corp vet who lost his home from spiraling health problems. He doesn’t expect any one person to solve all his health issues, but believes the frustration for many, himself included, is wrangling complex paperwork just to get plugged in to their benefits.
“Nobody knows who I’m supposed to talk to,” Harrison said, emotion creeping into his voice. “They cannot find my records. I was at so many different duty stations, so many different bases, so many different operations — there’s absolutely no way that every record along the path is lost.”
McDonald interrupted him to flag down a staffer to get the marine’s info. Harrison spent about 15 minutes talking with a VA employee as she scribbled down notes.
Afterward, Harrison explained that in spite of struggling to find enough care, he does see folks trying hard to help within a flawed system.
“I think people are emotional on all this, and I think maybe people are maybe wanted to blame the secretary or hold him to task,” Harrison said, pausing to add, “The man’s doing a job.”
“We follow up on everything,” the Secretary said during an interview after the event. He stayed late taking questions, and had to hustle out the door in order to make his flight, but called from the road. He insists the listening sessions are more than a show. His staffers take notes during testimony and follow up with every individual case to see if it’s valid, and if so what can be done.
Asked whether that was a general goal or a literal protocol, McDonald replied quickly, “Every single thing.”
The Secretary’s visit also included a trip to Kotzebue, and a headstone ceremony on Wednesday in Point Hope.