Native American Veteran care and benefits were at the center of a Nov. 20 Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill.
Secretary Robert Wilkie told Congress there are two areas that can help Native American Veterans – expanding telehealth and more benefits events.
“One solution we have pursued is telehealth,” he said. “VA has its own telehealth facilities in the western states – Alaska, Montana, Oklahoma and Wyoming – and they are helping us to get care to Veterans who don’t live that short drive away from a VA facility.”
On the benefits side, Wilkie said VA hosted 30 claims events, assisting more than 1,000 Native American Veterans from 24 tribes in the past year.
Wilkie said one of his priorities is reaching out to rural and Native populations, who make up 31,000 active duty and 140,000 Veterans.
“Our pledge at VA is to continue to work with tribal governments to face the unique challenges that accompany life of America’s Native communities,” he said.
Wilkie said VA works with Indian Health Services to make sure Native American Veterans get the care they need.
“It’s our mission to make sure all Native Americans know that this VA belongs to them as well,” he said.
Native American Veterans can access the VA-IHS Consolidated Mail Order Pharmacy Program, which sends prescription medications directly to Native homes, Wilkie said. Last year, the program processed 840,000 prescriptions for Native Veterans, up 17 percent from the previous year.
Native American Veterans also receive VA care through benefits, helping them on issues like job training and housing. Additionally, Wilkie said the National Cemetery Administration is a key partner in the Library of Congress’ Warrior Spirit Project. This yearlong curriculum development project honors American Indian Veterans by profiling the sacrifice and patriotism of Native Americans who are memorialized across the country.
Wilkie encouraged Congress to take two steps that would help VA connect with Native America. The first was to consider a bipartisan bill that will help VA directly fund state and local groups that are in a position to help prevent Veteran suicide, VA’s number one clinical priority.
“It’s something we believe can make an immediate difference in Veterans’ lives,” he said.
Wilkie said VA also supports legislation to establish a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs, which he said would help Native American Veterans.
“We believe that this would provide a formal structure and forum for VA to engage with tribal leadership and create many opportunities for collaboration to improve VA services to Native American Veterans.”
As VA secretary, Wilkie has traveled to the Dakotas, Montana, Oklahoma, Alaska and Wyoming to meet with Native American Veterans, tribal leaders and caregivers. He also has trips planned to Kansas, Arizona and New Mexico.
Wikie is the first VA secretary to testify before the committee. Veterans Health Administration Executive in Charge Dr. Richard Stone also testified in front of the committee.