Soldotna clinic represents new dose of VA Alaska service
For central Kenai Peninsula veterans, a new clinic in Soldotna is a nicer, bigger, more convenient location to get VA services. For the Veterans Administration, the facility represents more than just what it offers to local vets. It, and a new clinic that opened in Homer in 2020, represents a federal initiative to improve VA healthcare delivery throughout Alaska.
“We’re committed to serving our veterans across the state. Each one of our community-based outpatient clinics are being increased in size to provide better services and better access for our veterans. And, so, the Kenai Borough has benefitted from being on the tip of the spear, if you will," said Tom Steinbrunner, director of the Alaska VA healthcare system.
Steinbrunner said it makes sense to start rolling out clinic expansions on the Kenai. The peninsula has one of the highest populations of veterans in Alaska, which has the highest per-capita concentration of vets in the country. And central peninsula VA services were in serious need of an overhaul. Different services had different locations and the old Kenai outpatient clinic, in the Kenai Center Mall, was rendered homeless in 2019 by roof instability. Medical services were offered out of Central Peninsula Hospital until late December, when the brand-new building opened on Rockwell Avenue, a block away from the hospital.
It’s twice the size of the old Kenai clinic and consolidates services in one location. Vets can get mental and medical health services — including audiology and podiatry, with chiropractic services coming soon. There’s help with housing for those facing homelessness, through a partnership with the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development. And there are meeting rooms for classes, group therapy and other activities.
“And then we will be looking to size up the team based on veteran enrollment. And, certainly, our goal is to encourage veterans in the central peninsula to enroll with the VA so that we can provide good-quality care and services to them,” Steinbrunner said.
Current staff includes two providers in medical care and two in social/behavioral health, augmented by visiting specialists. Clients will recognize the local personnel they’re already used to, with the potential to add more as use of the facility grows.
The VA estimates there are around 8,000 veterans on the Kenai Peninsula, with a little under 2,000 currently receiving VA services out of the Soldotna and Homer clinics. Steinbrunner said they’re hoping to increase the number of peninsula vets they serve by 50 percent. But that will take more vets signing up for VA benefits.
That hasn’t been an easy sell in the past. Just a handful of years ago, the VA in Alaska had a black eye for being mired in bureaucracy. Getting treatment often meant long wait times, having to travel to Anchorage and trying to navigate a call center in the Lower 48 just to make an appointment.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, himself a veteran, was an outspoken critic of the failings of the VA system in Alaska when he got into office in 2015.
“The lack of personnel, the lack of space in terms of health care facilities," Sullivan said. "And the broken system that came with Choice Act, where they had literally outsourced just making appointments for Alaska veterans down to somewhere in the Lower 48, I think it was Louisiana. I mean, the entire system was cratering.”
Sullivan said Alaska VA administrators and local service providers weren’t the problem, but it was tough to get Washington, D.C. to understand the realities of delivering services in Alaska. He said he’s pleased with the improvements in the community-based outpatient clinics.
“The thing that I’ve been excited about is that those expansions are taking place not just on the Kenai, but they have committed to either new construction or expanded construction in the Valley, in Fairbanks, in Juneau and in Anchorage,” Sullivan said.
If veterans aren’t currently signed up for VA benefits or have stopped trying to use them due to headaches in the past, Sullivan said now is the time to give the VA in Alaska a chance.
“You’ve earned this. You are a very small percentage of the population, less than 1 percent now volunteers to serve in the military. You’ve earned these benefits, so please try to take advantage of them,” Sullivan said.
Vets can sign up for VA benefits at va.gov/health-care/apply/application/introduction. The new VA clinic in Soldotna can be reached at (907) 395-4100.