By Mary Shinn, News21
Tuba City, Ariz. – American Indian Health Service centers and tribal health care clinics nationwide are now getting Department of Veterans Affairs reimbursement for care they provide to Native American veterans.
The reimbursements allow health care centers to share staff, technology, training and other resources. Native Americans who are veterans also get increased access to VA health care. For example Indian Health Services staff will receive training to treat veterans with conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The VA started processing reimbursements in May 2013.
In December 2012, VA and IHS signed the national agreement. Local versions of the agreement are being negotiated. So far 34 local agreements have been signed across the country, according the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations. There are 566 federally recognized tribes, many of them in remote locations.
Native Americans are only .8 percent of the overall U.S. population, but they are 1.6 percent of the currently deployed forces in Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense data.
Ron Tso, the CEO of an IHS center in the Navajo Nation, said at a health benefits summit in June that it’s important to share resources in preparation for returning veterans.
“We’re going to have a whole slew of veterans returning from Afghanistan, we have to be ready,” Tso said.
But IHS and the VA still haven’t designed a way to share electronic health records.
Veterans also voiced concerns at the June health summit on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona that part of the agreement would lead to more bureaucracy. For example, if a veteran needs care that was not provided by IHS, must go to the VA for a referral.
Rick Gray, a Vietnam veteran who lives on the Navajo Nation in Kayenta, Ariz., said often veterans are given inadequate answers when they ask specific questions about VA care.
“All we get it is: We’re sorry, we’re sorry,” he said.
Gray has fought for better healthcare on the Navajo Nation and he said it is true that the VA is trying to offer more veteran specific healthcare. In many cases they are still waiting for care to improve while the reimbursement agreements are put into place, he said. In many areas, veterans have been waiting for better care so long they no longer expect change, he said.
“A lot of the comments we get from veterans is: We’ll believe it, when we see it.”