(Washington D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) attended a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Indian Health Service (IHS) cooperation. Murray questioned witnesses on ways the VA could work more effectively with IHS to support our tribal veterans and ensure they get the health care and benefits they need and deserve.
Senator Murray questioned Councilman Andrew Joseph, from the Confederated Tribes of Colville, in Washington state about steps that he would recommend the VA and IHS take to cooperate more effectively and help tribal veterans receive they care they need.
“Tribal veterans have made tremendous sacrifices for our country,” Senator Patty Murray said in her opening statement at the hearing. “But I also know that tribal veterans face some of the toughest barriers to accessing the services they have earned. Many tribal veterans don't live near VA services, some face communication barriers, and too often tribal veterans face issues with coordination between the Indian Health Service and the VA. But it is our job to do everything within our power to break down these barriers and help our tribal veterans access the care they need. You fought for us, now we've got to fight for you.”
The hearing focused on the unique needs of tribal veterans who receive care from both the IHS as well as the VA. Senator Murray questioned witnesses on the implementation of a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the two agencies in 2003 to address the needs of tribal veterans.
Senator Murray also asked witnesses about the unique cultural needs of tribal veterans, and the need for the VA and the IHS to work hard to ensure that tribal veterans can count on being accommodated when they seek health care.
American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are more overrepresented in the military than any other major racial or ethnic group. Like Native Hawaiians, AI/AN veterans report higher rates of PTSD than veterans in general. Also, tribal veterans are four times more likely than other veterans to report unmet health care needs, according to the Center for Disease Control and IHS. AI/AN veterans may be eligible for VA health care as well as IHS care, but until February 2003, the two systems did not operate under a memorandum of understanding.
The 2003 MOU outlined five mutual goals focused on access, communication, partnerships, resources, and health promotion, and other mutual commitments.
The full text of Senator Murray’s opening statement follows:
“Thank you so much Chairman Akaka, Senator Burr, and Senator Tester for holding this hearing today.
“I am looking forward to discussing cooperation between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Service to improve health care and benefits for American Indian, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian veterans.
“I also want to thank the witnesses appearing before the committee. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives on the cooperation between these two agencies since the implementation of their Memorandum of Understanding.
“I want to especially thank Councilman Andrew Joseph from the Confederated Tribes of Colville who came here to testify today from my home state of Washington.
“I would like to take a moment to say how proud I am of the veterans in this room.
“You have all sacrificed so much in service to our country, and we owe it to you to honor the promises we’ve made to take care of you when you come home. And one of the most important ways we do this is by ensuring access to a veterans system that treats you fairly.
“Tribal veterans in particular have made tremendous sacrifices for our country. In fact, Native Americans serve in the Armed Forces at a higher rate per capita than any other ethnic group.
“But I also know that tribal veterans face some of the toughest barriers to accessing the services they have earned. Many tribal veterans don't live near VA services, some face communication barriers, and too often tribal veterans face issues with coordination between the Indian Health Service and the VA.
“But it is our job to do everything within our power to break down these barriers and help our tribal veterans access the care they need. You fought for us, now we've got to fight for you.
“We began moving in the right direction six years ago when the Memorandum of Understanding was signed.
“But enough time has gone by for us to see some tangible results from the cooperation this agreement was meant to develop.
“Thank you again, Mr. Chairman—and I look forward to hearing from the experts about the progress of this cooperation.”