Senate bill aims to help more Native veterans access VA, eliminate copays

Members of the elite Navajo Code Talkers, the famed U.S. Marine unit who delivered unbreakable codes during World War II battles against the Japanese, look on before the start of the annual Veterans Day parade November 11, 2009 in New York City.
Members of the elite Navajo Code Talkers, the famed U.S. Marine unit who delivered unbreakable codes during World War II battles against the Japanese, look on before the start of the annual Veterans Day parade November 11, 2009 in New York City. Photo credit Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

Leading Veterans Affairs senators introduced a bill which that to help more Native veterans access VA care and ease the burden of that care by eliminating copays.

Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Jon Tester, D-Montana, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced the Native American Veteran Parity in Access to Care Today (PACT) Act. The bill would eliminate copays for Native veterans getting health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Native Americans who receive health care and services through the Department of Health and Human Services and Indian Health Service already aren't required to pay copays -- a major disparity for veterans, which could also prevent some from getting needed care.

Native Americans, including some veterans, receiving care through IHS are not subject to copayments because of the United States trust and treaty obligations to Native peoples. But VA so far has not followed those agreements.

Last fall, Native veterans arrived in Washington, D.C. representing their tribes and organizations in a hearing on Capitol Hill where one of the leading issues they asked Congress to address was unequal treatment through copays.

“Native Americans serve our nation at the highest rates, and we have a responsibility to ensure they have access to benefits and care they’ve earned when they return home from service,” Tester said in a statement. “The fact is that the federal government is tasked with providing health care to all Native American veterans free of charge — and the buck stops with VA."

“Our nation is proud of the 21,000 Native Americans who have served our country, and it is our responsibility to make certain the care they are provided at the Department of Veterans Affairs is in line with current federal practice,” Moran said.

Native veterans already face unique challenges compared to fellow vets. Native Americans and Native Alaskans are more likely to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than any other group, yet they remain among the poorest and least insured veterans, with the least access to VA services.

Native veterans are more likely to live far from VA facilities, tend to have lower personal incomes, higher unemployment and lack health insurance compared to their fellow veterans, according to the National Congress of American Indians. When they do receive care, they often face major cultural and language barriers. Native veterans also struggle to form tribal veterans service organizations, which could help navigate the sprawling bureaucracy of the VA and its claims system.

Native veterans face much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide and other issues shared by fellow veterans. In some cases, Native veterans are twice as likely to have PTSD, according to the National Indian Health Board.

Many of those concerns have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal treaty and trust obligations with Native American and Native Alaskan people, along with veterans' service, means Native veterans should qualify to have their care covered, but so far, that hasn't been the reality at the Veterans Health Administration, said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

"The PACT Act moves us closer to fulfillment of the federal government’s dual responsibility to Native veterans," said Stacy Bohlen, CEO of the National Indian Health Board.

There are few legislative days left on Congress' calendar before the end of the year and a new Congress starts in 2021. With that turnover, any bills that have not yet passed must be reintroduced and begin the legislative process all over again. With bipartisan support from leading Veterans Affairs lawmakers in the Senate and previously voiced support for such a change among House Veterans Affairs leaders, however, it's not out of the question that the bill could see votes before the year is out.


Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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