MAT-SU — The Veterans Affairs Clinic in Wasilla was singled out for scrutiny in a Senate Appropriations Committee report out of Washington, D.C.

According to a press release from U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, among the amendments she won to the Fiscal Year 2015 Military Construction/Veterans Affairs funding bill was one calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to:

“Investigate the Wasilla Community Based Outpatient Clinic staff shortage by conducting a Wasilla-specific report that will examine the series of staffing incidents that have occurred since the clinic’s opening – with a due date of Feb. 1, 2015.”

According to Frontiersman archives, the clinic opened in 2008. The text of the Senate committee’s report offers a few more specifics on what exactly the senators want to see investigated in Wasilla.

 “Since its opening, this clinic has been plagued by security issues and a series of stressful incidents including the suicide of a veteran in the clinic’s parking lot,” the report reads.

The suicide referred to was that of R.K. Butts, who shot himself outside of the clinic on Seward Meridian Parkway Feb. 3, 2011. Butts was a frequent contributor to the Frontiersman’s letters page and an unmistakable presence at public meetings.

“The Committee understands that these issues, coupled with a lack of staffing at the clinic to support a large caseload, have resulted in staff attrition, including the recent resignation of the clinic’s only medical provider.”

The Veterans Affairs administration has recently been a subject of intense outrage after allegations surfaced of veterans shunted off onto secret waiting lists at clinics trying to game the system when it came to reporting their wait times.

The scandal has since metastasized, with preliminary numbers from an audit released Monday showing that thousands of veterans had been sidetracked when trying to schedule appointments.

Major findings in the audit include:

• widespread confusion with a complicated scheduling system;

• a 14-day target for wait times described as “unattainable given growing demand for services” and inconsistently deployed;

• 13 percent of staff reported being directed to enter a scheduling date other than what the veteran requested;

• 8 percent of scheduling staff using alternatives to the electronic wait list, including unofficial lists.

Although the report was devastating nationwide, the only Alaska facility mentioned in the report, the VA hospital in Anchorage, actually fared well, with only 1 percent of patients having to wait longer than 30 days.

Alaska’s junior senator, Democrat Mark Begich, who has previously held up the VA here as a model the national system could follow, quickly put out a statement hailing those results.

“I’m reading this report closely but am pleased it shows the VA health care system in Alaska does not have the same significant problems that other states are experiencing. In addition to having fewer veterans on our wait lists, wait times for Alaskan veterans for services are far less than in other states and, in the case of mental health issues, the AK VA essentially achieves same-day-service with immediate assessments,” read Begich’s statement, released just before 2:30 p.m.

Murkowski was more guarded in her assessment.

“The Anchorage findings from the VA’s nationwide audit are encouraging, but it’s important to note these figures only represent a single, momentary snapshot that reflects a number of proactive moves made by the Anchorage outpatient clinic to reduce a backlog that reportedly reached 900 late last year,” the Senator wrote in a press release put out just minutes before Begich’s. “I am proud that the Anchorage VA leads the system in partnerships with community providers — a strategy I’ve been prodding the VA to adopt since 2006.”

Contact Andrew Wellner at 352-2270 or andrew.wellner@frontiersman.com.

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