With over 77,000 veterans and over 22,000 active duty military in Alaska, it is critical that our state take a more active role toward improving services for military members and their families. In my oversight role regarding military and veteran affairs in Alaska, there are three ways I am doing this:
- Sponsorship and support of military legislation.
- Funding of programs that aid active duty military and veterans.
- Advocating for Alaskan military members and veterans before federal agencies.
Areas of concern I have heard over and over from the veteran community include access to health care, employment opportunities, and the increasing number of homeless veterans. I have been working with a number of veteran organizations to improve services and I continue to look for additional opportunities to partner with organizations and individuals.
A young service member who recently returned from Afghanistan told me he felt employers viewed him as a burden if they were to hire him. Veterans unemployment rate is nearly double that of the average unemployment rate—a state of affairs I find completely unacceptable.
Federal tax benefits are available to business owners of any state for hiring veterans under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program. But it is not just the federal government who should be taking action, which is why I sponsored legislation to encourage more veteran hires in Alaska through a corporate tax credit which passed the legislature this past session.
This issue is a priority for me, which is why I am constantly exploring additional options to encourage employment and educational opportunities for returning service members.
It is frustrating for me to constantly hear from veterans that health care is either not accessible or not being provided. Bureaucracy can create obstacles to treatment, which is why I have been attending meetings at VA facilities, town halls, and veteran organizational meetings. I have been passing on concerns to officials at the VA and working with individuals to provide assistance when needed.
Progress has been made in Alaska in delivering affordable and local health care to rural veterans. An agreement between the VA and several Alaska Native tribal health programs will allow veterans to receive health care services in tribal clinics in various parts of Alaska. Under the agreement, the VA will reimburse the participating health care entities for the services.
In addition, a $300,000 grant was awarded to Alaska to expand, modernize, and streamline telehealth services for veterans which will save time and money for veterans living in rural Alaska who would otherwise have to travel to receive care. The grant is the result of a partnership between the Department of Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs and seeks to spur collaborative telehealth networks and virtual linkages among rural health providers and the VA to help meet the needs of rural veterans.
To address the increasing number of veterans without a place to live, I have been working with community organizations on a housing project that will provide housing, food, and access to medical services, counseling and employment services. In addition, supporting established groups, who assist providing veterans with a warm meal, a warm place to stay, and employment opportunities, is so important. Part of the effort entails improving communication and raising awareness of existing support groups, thereby helping to connect veterans with the services that are already being provided.