Native American Vets Face Unique Challenges

Recently, Andrew Simpson, a Navajo Nation member, a Vietnam Veteran and Board Chairperson of Sage Memorial Hospital in Ganado, Arizona presented testimony to U.S. Dept. of Veteran Affairs (VA) and Indian Health Service (IHS) Administrators at the National Indian Health Board meeting in Temecula, CA. Mr. Simpson called for the VA to have a continued presence at every IHS in order to meet the unique needs of Native veterans.

Native American Veterans Serve At A Greater Rate Than Any Other Group


Americans may be surprised to discover that American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians have served in the United States armed services branches at a greater disproportionate rate than other groups. There are an estimated 338,000 American Indian veterans. Given the history of the United States, this may seem unusual but it is a history of service that began during World War I and continues today.

A Partnership Was Forged To Improve Health Care Delivery


Members of the Senate (Select) Committee on Indian Affairs who have proudly served in the military defending our Country have left a large legacy in Indian Country. This includes Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), and Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI). Under their leadership, the intersection of military service and rural health care was the impetus for creating a partnership between IHS and the VA so that the numerous American Indian Veterans would have better access to health care.

A Good Beginning

In a 2012 hearing before the United States Committee on Indian Affairs[1], Sen. Akaka stated that: Native Americans, including American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians, have served in the United States Armed Forces with honor for more than 200 years, fighting in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and the Spanish American War long before they were acknowledged as American Citizens. It is a well-known fact in this committee that Native Americans have the highest rate of service per capita of any group in the Nation.

Beginning in 2003 and then revised in 2010, the VA and IHS entered into a Memorandum of Understanding that allows the VA to reimburse IHS when Native veterans are seen at those facilities as opposed to a VA facility and collaborate on other service delivery.

Alaskan Natives Also Benefit

A Similar agreement is in place to provide health services to Alaskan Native in Alaska. Veterans, the Alaska VA Healthcare System negotiated and entered into agreements with Tribal Health Programs in Alaska under which Alaska VA will reimburse Alaska Tribal Health Programs (ATHP) for direct care services provided to eligible Veterans.  Other services provided by the VA to Native Veterans include pharmacy services, training and technical assistance about utilizing the VA home loan program.

Veteran Treatment Courts

To address another important problem, Stephanie Birdwell, Director, Office of Tribal Government Relations, U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs testified about a new program the VA was developing at the time. The VA was working with the Veterans Treatment Courts across the country. According to Ms. Birdwell, “These Courts identify treatment options for many of our Veterans with substance use disorders or mental health conditions. OTGR is working with VHA to create a Veterans Treatment Court ‘‘How To’’ guide to help identify and link Native American Veterans involved with the criminal justice system with VA resources and other providers as an alternative to incarceration. The anticipated release of this guide is scheduled for September 2012. Our goal is to provide Tribal governments the resources they need to incorporate, at their discretion, elements of the Veterans that may promote healing in their communities.”

She acknowledged that the VA could do more to increase Native American’s veteran’s access to and utilization of benefits such as compensation and pension, vocational, rehabilitation and employment services, and Post-9/11 GI Bill and other education benefits that they have earned.

IT Systems Has Problems According to the GAO

More recently, the Government Accountability Office issued a report[2] detailing IT problems that plague the VA and IHS health care systems filing for reimbursement and shared staffing complications. GAO said difficulties in achieving IT interoperability among VA, IHS, and Tribal Health Program facilities posed significant problem to the mission. “If an American Indian or Alaskan Native veteran was sent to VA for a service, the THP provider would not receive the veteran’s follow-up records as quickly as if they had access to each other’s systems,” GAO said.

If you are a Native American Veteran and are having problem accessing services, the attorneys at Whitcomb, Selinsky Law PC have the expertise to assist you. Please call (303) 534-1958 or complete an online contact form.



[2] VA AND INDIAN HEALTH SERVICE Actions Needed to Strengthen Oversight and Coordination of Health Care for American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans, GAO-19-291

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