On August 6, 2012, President Obama signed the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012.” The new law offers extended care to service members based at Camp Lejeune when contaminated water caused major medical issues, and the law prohibits protests at military funerals in the two hours immediately prior to a funeral.
However, a missing factor was the mention of an issue debated in Congress for nearly five years, with the latest hearings taking in place in May 2012 concerning the Native American veterans’ healthcare.
When military veterans return home, they typically receive healthcare, but a number of Native American veterans living in remote areas continue to face unmet medical needs because of the challenges in getting to a veterans health facility. This includes not just their general needs, but also access to regular diabetic check ups or substance abuse treatment.
Serving in every conflict since the Revolutionary War, Native Americans currently have the highest rates of service per capita than any other U.S. ethnic group. Today, over 137,000 Native American veterans live in the United States - 10 percent are women.
"Due to their political status as Native Americans as well as their status as veterans, Native veterans are eligible for federal programs and services through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS)," noted Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, Director of the Indian Health Service, at a recent Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing.
In the past, the VA told Indian veterans to go to the IHS, which redirected them to the VA because they were veterans. Due to the wrongly denial of care for some Native veterans, a call for improved coordination between the two agencies has for nearly five years become a priority. To alleviate the problem, the Department of Veterans Affairs established the Office of Tribal Government Relations in January 2011. But even moving that far took a great deal of time. At a 2009 Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), noted that, “American Indian and Alaska Native veterans report unmet healthcare needs at four times the rate of other veterans.” In 2010, the two agencies boosted resource sharing to improve care for Native vets, but many still fell through the cracks.
Finally, just prior to Memorial Day weekend this year, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held another hearing on the issue. Senator Akaka returned as Chairman of the committee, and asked if the 45,000 Native veterans receiving care through IHS knew they were eligible at both VA and IHS. The answers weren’t easy ones.
The main theme that surfaced was that locale disenfranchised some Native veterans, particularly Alaska Native veterans where access often involves spending money and time traveling several hundreds of miles to a VA clinic - usually involving expensive round-trip plane rides from remote villages to Anchorage.
The IHS already provides services to nearly 1.9 million Native Americans through local clinics located in 35 States. Some new pilot programs, initiated in June 2012, involve collaboration between Alaska’s Eastern Aleutians Tribes and the VA that allows Native veterans to receive their VA healthcare at local IHS clinics rather than face the transportation challenges of going to a VA facility. A similar program is taking place for some of Montana’s more than 5,000 Native veterans involving a “Memorandum of Understanding” between the VA, IHS, and the Blackfeet Nation. Another program is providing telemedicine services between the Prescott, Arizona, VA facility and the IHS clinic on the Navajo Nation Reservation.
The VA health system is often complex and frustrating for any veteran, but for different tribes who have distinct traditions and beliefs, it is even more complicated. The hope is that the expansion of these pilot programs will lead to a nationwide solution to getting VA benefits to Native veterans. This includes dependents (including the surviving spouse, child, or parents of a deceased veteran) that earned VA benefits but have yet to register for them.
The IHS and VA are now reviewing Tribal input and plan to proceed soon with a national implementation of “a broad range of IHS-VA collaborations at the local level by IHS Area Offices and Tribal Health Programs with the Veterans Health Administration,” according to Roubideaux.