WASILLA — The discussion over what to do about the Wasilla Veterans Affairs clinic is heating up with plans for a public meeting to hear veterans’ concerns.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she’s still hammering out details for a meeting with Valley veterans she plans to hold on her way through town next week when she attends events in Talkeetna. But tentatively, the meeting is planned at 5:30 p.m., July 2 at the Curtis D. Menard Memorial Sports Center, 1001 S. Mack Drive, in Wasilla.
Murkowski added language to a VA appropriations committee report that calls for an investigating into staffing shortages in Wasilla.
“My office, in not only Wasilla but also in Anchorage, had just been receiving a fair number of calls from people that were just very frustrated with their inability to be seen in a timely manner in Wasilla,” she said.
She said she also did two walkthroughs, one at the start of the tenure of the last doctor permanently assigned there and one close to the end.
“She has moved on. From everything I can tell from folks she did a great job at what she did but it was the workload that ultimately drew her away from a place and an opportunity that she had absolutely embraced when she got here,” Murkowski said.
Two days after Murkowski’s call for an investigation on June 18, the VA in Anchorage issued a statement.
“Despite the departure of VA permanent physicians at the Wasilla (Community Based Outpatient Clinic), the CBOC has never been without a provider to treat Veterans,” reads part of the VA’s press release, issued June 20.
The VA says that it’s seeking to hire two doctors for that clinic. Vets say that the clinic was built for two doctors, but has only been staffed with one permanent doctor; the most recent of which left when the stress overwhelmed her.
“She begged VA, her main corporate headquarters in Anchorage, for help,” said veteran Ed Hegedus, who added that care under she provided was much better than anything he received in Anchorage. “She did everything she could for the vets. She did everything in her power. She busted her butt.”
The VA says that in the meantime it’s filling in with temporary doctors through its Locum Tenens Program. Three of doctors from that program are currently working out of the Wasilla clinic.
“Additionally, over 500 patients have been referred to South Central Foundation (SCF) Valley Native Primary Care Clinic for Primary Care. SCF continues to see newly enrolled Mat-Su patients and are able to enroll 30 patients a week,” the VA writes.
Murkowski said she wants to find out just what the problem with recruiting people is. She said that other organizations have been able to place doctors in much more remote facilities, such as Barrow, Bethel and Kotzebue.
“Here you are in Wasilla on the road system with supposedly plenty of amenities that would attract someone from outside and we just can’t recruit the necessary full-time providers that we need,” she said.
She said that’s one of the reasons she called for an investigation, adding that such investigations aren’t unusual.
“This is not unusual. When I am made aware of things whether it’s again potential for fraud or mismanagement which we may have had within the VA system or it’s sexual assault in the military I’ve got some tools at my disposal to really try to drill down and figure out what’s going on,” Murkowski said.
Her call for an investigation mentioned the suicide in 2011 of veteran R.K. Butts, who shot and killed himself outside of the Wasilla clinic. She didn’t speculate on why Butts killed himself but said that the incident was kind of a wake-up call to people outside of VA circles that something was wrong. And, whatever the reason he took his own life, Butts clearly needed help, she said.
“As tragic as that was I think for many it was the first appreciation that perhaps the VA was not attending to those who clearly had need,” she said Thursday.
Contact Andrew Wellner at 352-2270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.