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Top VA official visits: Town hall presented

Daily News Staff Writer

On Tuesday, veterans of all ages and branches of service had the opportunity to engage with Timothy Ballard, director of the Alaska Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, during a well-attended town hall meeting held at Ketchikan's American Legion post.

“The VA has been behind the times in regard to meeting veterans' needs,” Ballard said. “And some of it has to do with the rules, but I think some of it has to do with our culture.”

And Ballard said he really does want to change the culture and rules of the Alaska VA Healthcare System.

Since he came on as director in July of 2016, the system has improved greatly. According to Ballard, the Alaska VA Healthcare system has grown by leaps and bounds.

Ballard noted a number of achievements, including overall improvements in quality of care.

And VA staff across the state seem to be pleased with some of the changes that Ballard — and the Alaska VA Healthcare System — have begun to implement.

“In the past year we had the highest growth of staff satisfaction in the entire country,” Ballard said. “And we have decided to plus up our staff. … We're really excited to bring on more staff to take care of veteran needs.”

Ballard told the Daily News that he conducts dozens of these town-hall events across the state each year. The format typically begins with some updates about the overall operations of the Alaska VA Healthcare System, leading into an informal town-hall environment.

“We'll stay here as long as it takes until we answer your questions,” Ballard opened. “We're staying the night tonight, so if you need to stay here until midnight and close the bar out, so be it.”

Ballard brought a number of other folks with him to Ketchikan as well.

The other VA employees who visited included representatives from the integrated care office, employees who deal with rural health issues, an official who works with homeless veterans and two representatives from the VA's Juneau clinic.

Ballard said that the staff were there to answer any one-on-one questions veterans might have, as well as offer guidance on questions regarding referrals and billing.

During his opening remarks Ballard made a point to touch on a topic that affects veterans disproportionally across Alaska and the nation — that of suicide.

“Just to reiterate, I talk about it every town hall, 20 veterans every day across our country commit suicide,” Ballard said. “It's a travesty.

“What's even more of a travesty — from our perspective at the VA — is 14 of those 20 haven't been using our system whatsoever in the past three years,” he added.

He explained that the VA is supposed to act as a well-oiled support system for those who have served the country.

During his remarks Ballard was also was quite optimistic about the future of the VA's budget going forward.

“Our budget right now is very good,” Ballard said. “I think we have plenty of money to cover veteran health care throughout this year, and if the president's current budget proposal is any indication, the VA's health care budget is probably going to go up somewhere between $10 and $15 billion next year.”

Ballard consistently made the distinction between the national office of Veterans Affairs and the Alaska one. He explained that Alaska offers unique challenges for veteran care.

“In general the VA, particularly what we're trying to do here in the state of Alaska, is continuing to evolve and try to address your issues,” he told the crowd.

When asked by the Daily News on Tuesday what the biggest issue facing Alaska veterans is, Ballard pointed to the difficulties of getting information distributed across such a large state with myriad dispersed population centers.

“Number one is information,” Ballard said. “We're spread across an area twice the size of Texas, we only have five places where we have clinics, and in those places where we don't have clinics, the veterans don't know where to turn.”

Although it didn't come up during the town-hall portion of the event, Ballard spoke following the meeting about the ongoing issue of opioid addiction in the veteran community.

Ballard said that a quarter of all specialty-care appointments in the VA are pain related. He explained that with the proliferation of addictive prescription narcotics, some veterans might end up addicted and in need of assistance.

He noted that the VA does provide resources and medication services for those affected by the opioid epidemic.

“We use Suboxone, many of our providers do that, there's some access to Methadone, but really it comes down to trying to find what's best for the individual veteran,” Ballard explained. “… This is a national epidemic.”

However, Ballard did say that productive strides had already been made in combating the issue within the state's VA system.

“We take a lot of pride in having reduced the dependence on opioids in our system by well over 50 percent,” Ballard said. Although he noted that “there is still a long way to go.”

Another major point that Ballard and his team wanted to drive home was the issue of consolidation. He explained that the Alaska VA Healthcare System has been working to be a one-stop shop for all issues relating to veteran health care.

“You all are hungry for information, you don't know where to turn to get the right information,” Ballard explained. “… We want to have one phone number, one email address, one office where any veteran can call in Alaska, get us and we'll provide your answers as opposed to playing phone tag.”

Overall, Ballard said later that the event itself went very smoothly and that he was glad to be able to address the Ketchikan veteran community.

“This has been amazing,” Ballard said. “… The turnout we had — I'd say close to 40 people were here, and that's a great turnout.”