he election is over and the dust has settled. I congratulate Dan Sullivan. He and I disagreed on many issues, but now he is senator and it is time to move forward to address Alaska’s needs.
It has been an enormous honor to serve Alaskans as your U.S. senator the last six years. From the Alaskans who left their homes to work in Washington, D.C., to the staff in my six Alaska offices, to the interns and volunteers, I consider my team the best in the nation.
Whatever our challenge, our goal always was finding a way to get to “yes” to resolve the problem.
I’m proud of our work to open the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to development for the first time since its establishment in 1923, now moving forward to produce 46,000 barrels of oil a day. Many said opening Alaska’s Arctic to oil exploration to meet our state and nation’s energy needs would never happen, but we got it done.
We brought federal agencies together to create in Alaska the best access for veterans’ health care in the country. Now anywhere there is a tribal clinic or hospital, a veteran can get care there instead of traveling to Anchorage or Seattle and the VA will pay for it.
I consider this a major accomplishment. Alaska’s approach is now a national model being adopted across the country. The men and women who make up our military deserve access to excellent care and there is more to be done to make this happen.
We achieved much for Alaska’s First Peoples: permanently reauthorizing the Indian Health Service, securing half a billion in federal dollars in back payments to our tribes after two decades of no action, ensuring traditional foods can be served in federally funded facilities, and increasing broadband technology throughout rural Alaska. When Alaska Natives thrive, all of Alaska reaps the rewards.
I am proud of fighting for Alaska’s unique needs: protecting Bypass Mail; getting special permanent funding for Alaska ports, telecommunications and ferry service in Southeast; working with the delegation to save Essential Air Service.
We supported our military by protecting our F-16s in Fairbanks and missile defense at Fort Greely, secured F-35s coming next year and ensured Alaska bases aren’t facing the threat of shutdown. We passed advance authorization for VA medical services so our veterans’ needs don’t depend on annual congressional budget fights.
As chair of the Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, we ensured our fisherman are treated fairly, stopped the threat of Frankenfish to Alaska fisheries, protected the world’s most productive salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, and passed treaties to stop pirate fishing in our waters. We convinced members of Congress of the enormous value of sound fishery policy affecting commercial, sports, recreational and subsistence fishing.
Taking office as America faced the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we turned the economy around, producing the lowest unemployment in six years, growing the private sector economy for 55 consecutive months, cutting the annual federal deficit by 70 percent and returning the housing market to good health.
We reformed health care to ensure every Alaskan has access. Before reform, 34 percent of individual Alaskans were denied health care by insurance companies and kicked off their policies if they had a preexisting condition.
Seniors now have a stronger Medicare program, with more of their prescriptions covered. These are significant improvements, but more reform is needed to get prices under control.
We passed the Tourism Promotion Act, bringing more visitors to Alaska and the US.
Some of my most rewarding work was solving everyday problems facing everyday Alaskans. Making sure a VA disability check was processed. Saving an Alaskan’s home from foreclosure. Securing a Social Security check owed a senior. Fighting for earned benefits so a veteran could go to school. Safely delivering to an Alaskan mother her child stranded in a foreign country.
In six years, we responded to 360,000 letters and emails from Alaskans.
Alaska is a place unmatched by any other, a place I call my home, a place of unbelievable possibilities.
There is no better place than Alaska to see America. We never shy away from a challenge, we work together when times are tough and we love our state.
As I have always done all my life, I will continue to be part of the fabric of Alaska – serving the public where it fits best and doing all I can for this generation and the next.
Mark Begich is one of Alaska’s U.S senators until Jan. 2, 2015.