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Delays for appointments at Alaska VA facilities are shorter than US average, records show

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JUNEAU, Alaska — JUNEAU, Alaska — Average wait times for veterans seeking appointments at four Veterans Administration facilities in Alaska were below the national average, according to VA data for September through February.

The figures, which include wait time information for 940 VA hospitals and outpatient clinics nationwide, were compiled by The Associated Press and provide a snapshot in time. It shows that an average of less than 1 percent of completed appointments at the Anchorage outpatient clinic — 0.90 percent — involved delays of at least 31 days from the veteran's preferred appointment date during that period. Averages were lower at facilities in Wasilla, Fairbanks and Kenai, the data shows.

Nationally, about 2.8 percent of completed appointments involved delays of more than 30 days. The national data spans August through February.

Cynthia Joe, chief of staff for the Alaska Veterans Affairs Health Care System, said the VA has agreements with community health providers across Alaska to provide care that VA either cannot provide or cannot provide in a timely way. That arrangement has helped veterans, particularly those in rural areas, to receive care closer to where they live.

Recruitment of doctors and nurses to this remote state remains a challenge for the VA, a point underscored by the recent decision by a doctor, offered a job at the VA's Wasilla clinic, and his family to pass following a second visit to Alaska.

"We offered a job, they accept, they come up, take a look and then they decide, Alaska is not for them. Not the VA, but Alaska," said Samuel Hudson, a spokesman for the Alaska VA system.

The VA has interviewed a local candidate for the Wasilla job, Joe said. The Wasilla clinic garnered attention last year after U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski expressed concerns with staffing there and asked the VA's inspector general to look into the quality of care provided.

The clinic currently has a fulltime nurse practitioner there, and partners with the Southcentral Foundation to help with patients. The VA also has used contract physicians to help.

The VA also was recruiting for positions in Fairbanks and Anchorage, Joe said. The Kenai facility is fully staffed, she said.

Since taking office in January, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan and his staff have had meetings with the Alaska VA to better understand their concerns and challenges, Sullivan spokesman Mike Anderson said by email. While Sullivan is encouraged by the recent wait time statistics, Anderson said much work remains to ensure that veterans receive the care they need, when they need it.

During a March subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., Murkowski raised questions with VA Interim Undersecretary of Health Carolyn Clancy about the staffing situation, particularly in Wasilla, which is in a fast-growing region of the state.

"I can't figure out what the problem is here," Murkowski said, adding that she would like to know that VA is addressing this.

Alaska and other Western states are part of a medical collaborative with the University of Washington School of Medicine and Clancy said one of the things she was looking at was whether more students could be put into rotations that would have a focus on the VA.

Joe said the VA in Alaska works with the physician assistant program out of the University of Washington and is working on a partnership with the University of Alaska Anchorage for their psychology internship program.

"And the good thing about any type of training programs is, when you have the training programs, a lot of times the people that you trained are interested in staying with you," she said. "So it's very positive."

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