Courtesy SNAVA.org
The Southwest Native American Veterans Association’s first SNAVA Regional Conference September 21-24 appears to be a success.

Conference Focuses on Services to Native Veterans and Ways for Improvement

Kim Baca
10/6/14

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Service acknowledged that systems set up for Native American veterans haven’t worked as planned, but said they will continue to partner with tribes to provide better health care and other benefits.

David Montoya, deputy assistant secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs, apologized to veterans during a recent conference hosted by the Southwest Native American Veterans Association (SWNAVA). He also wanted to hear suggestions on how the VA and tribes could better work together.

Montoya, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), and representatives from the VA’s Center for Minority Veterans and the Office of Tribal Government Relations spoke during a three-day conference starting September 22 at the Isleta Resort & Casino in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Representatives from the Albuquerque IHS office and the New Mexico Department of Veteran Services also made comments and answered questions during the 2014 Southwest Regional Veterans Conference, making it the first time that top state and federal veterans officials have come together in this region, event organizers said.

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“We were able to not only get veterans there but tribal leadership and the major players of the VA in Washington and in the state all in one spot, and we were able to connect those veterans with those resources,” said Marvin Trujillo Jr., SWNAVA board member and incoming chairman of the VA’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans. “Tribal leaders had a better understanding to what their veterans were facing, such as the MOU between the VA and IHS.”

Revising a memorandum of agreement in 2010, the VA agreed to reimburse IHS for providing health care to Native American veterans. The MOU also called for sharing staff and access to electronic health records of shared patients, among other provisions.

Veterans attending the conference said that some of their IHS facilities could not provide services, such as counseling to address issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or physical therapy. Other vets said both the VA and IHS turned them away when the agencies learned they were veterans, with each agency stating the other was responsible for their care.

A Governmental Accountability Office Report published earlier this year found that the VA and IHS MOU was lacking oversight and written policies to fully provide access to care to Native vets.

The VA has reimbursed about $10 million to IHS in the past 18 months for direct care, according to the VA’s Office of Tribal Government Relations.

For conference organizers, the event was a way to start to develop a roadmap to the federal government’s complex veterans benefits system.

“There were several veterans that said, ‘I finally got my question answered, I got more information or I know who to contact or where to go to make contact,’” said Ramus Suina, SWNAVA Board Chairman. “Native veterans were really pleased that there was a conference set up strictly for them so they were able to gather the kind of information they needed. Now they can go back and engage with key people.”

Although continuing to assess the conference, future plans for SWNAVA, a new nonprofit created to aid Native American veterans with obtaining service benefits, could include working with Native communities in developing tribal veteran service offices or training to develop veterans officers, or developing policy.

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