Tester Pushes VA to Deliver Health Care Relief, Honor Commitment to Native American Veterans
Continuing efforts to support Native veterans, Chairman reintroduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the Tribal HUD-VASH program
(U.S. Senate) – Continuing his efforts to address the needs of Native veterans across the country, Chairman Jon Tester led a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing today where he pushed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to deliver copayment relief to Native American veterans—as directed by a law he championed last Congress.
A staunch advocate of supporting Native American veterans, Tester led his Committee colleagues in successfully securing several measures as part of a comprehensive end-of-year bill to allow Native veterans to gain easier access to VA care and benefits. This included two provisions to eliminate copayments for Native veterans accessing VA health care and establish a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs, which were signed into law January 2021. The Senator also authored the Native American Direct Loan Improvement Act earlier this year to help Native American veterans achieve homeownership.
“I’m disappointed VA hasn’t implemented the law we passed two years ago to end copays for VA health care for Native veterans,” Tester said at the hearing. “This creates a disincentive for Native veterans to use VA health care facilities, which is the opposite of what should be occurring. Dr. Upton, is VA on track to implement the copay prohibition by the end of next month?”
VA’s Deputy Under Secretary for Health Dr. Upton replied, “We absolutely understand the urgency and importance of this…the Secretary has shared publically that we’re going to have this done at the end of the year…we are actively working the operational and regulation-associated pieces to meet that goal.”
Dr. Upton also noted VA, at Tester’s urging, is actively considering a process to make veteran copayment benefits retroactive to January 2022, in line with Congressional intent.
Tester further underscored the importance of timely implementation: “One of the things that our veterans expect out of the VA—and I certainly expect out of the VA—is that they act in a timely manner. Congress did their job, and it’s hard for Congress to do their job, so…it shouldn’t take two years to get it done.”
VA officials also emphasized how the Department is working to provide culturally competent mental health care and partnering with Tribes to develop suicide prevention programs specific to Native veterans.
Ahead of today’s hearing, Chairman Tester reintroduced the Tribal HUD VASH Act—bipartisan legislation to help tackle Native veterans homelessness. The bill aims to codify a tribal housing initiative between VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which pairs HUD housing vouchers with VA case managers and supportive services, to provide rental and housing assistance to permanently house homeless and at-risk veterans in Indian Country. It will also ensure that at least five percent of all HUD-VASH vouchers are set aside for tribes and tribal housing authorities.
The National American Indian Housing Council (NAIHC) recently applauded the Senator’s bill:
“The National American Indian Housing Council is pleased to see continued support and commitment to Native veterans from Chairman Jon Tester of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee with the introduction of the Tribal HUD VASH Act. Even more Native veterans are experiencing homelessness post-pandemic and this bill would allow more tribes to participate in the program and in turn help more veterans in need,” said NAIHC Board Chair Thomas Lozano from Enterprise Rancheria. “NAIHC encourages members of Congress to support the Tribal HUD-VASH bill through its passage. The well-being of many veterans is at risk daily and more funding for services and resources for tribes is one great step in fulfilling the government's double responsibility to Native veterans as members of federally recognized tribes and members of the Armed Forces.”