Tester chairs hearing on Indian veteran issues
November 6, 2009
Tim Leeds Havre Daily News [email protected]
Montana's U.S. Sen. Jon Tester chaired a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee where two Montanan's testified about problems facing Native American military veterans in receiving health services, Tester announced in a press release. Part of the hearing focused on an issue also raised during Montana's Sen. Max Baucus' listening sessions on health reform over the last two years Indian veterans being sent back and forth from Indian Health Services and Veterans' Affairs trying to find health care. “Neither the VA or IHS have put the unique needs of Indian veterans front and center,” said Tester, also a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “We hear the horror stories of a veteran walking in to an IHS facility only to be told to go to the VA hospital hundreds of miles away, and of the veteran walking into a VA facility only to be sent to IHS.” Kevin Howlett, director of Tribal Health for Montana's Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and Buck Richardson, Minority Program coordinator at Fort Harrison near Helena, testified and were questioned by Tester and the other members of the committee Thursday. Tester requested the hearing a month ago. It focused on the VA and IHS making health care accessible to Indian veterans, especially in rural areas, as well as cultural barriers the VA must address in providing care for Indians. The number of Indians enrolled in the VA Montana is 4,600, the release said, although the actual number of Native American veterans is believed to be much higher. Tester called the “ping-ponging” of veterans unacceptable. “Promises were made to the men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation,” he added.“We need to make sure that those promises are kept.” A bill written by Tester, the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, also includes provisions dealing with the needs of Indian veterans. That bill, which has passed out of committee and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate, also would improve mental health services, provide grants for innovative programs that improve health care for rural veterans and lock in the VA's current 41.5-cents per mile travel reimbursement for disabled veterans, an issue championed by Tester since his election.