Indian vets score a win in Congress

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WASHINGTON – Legislation supporting Indian veterans and their survivors has made it through both branches of Congress, and will soon be signed by President Barack Obama into law.

The Senate moved Sept. 28 to pass the Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act, which remedies a problem that has seen Indian veterans who receive federal disability and survivor benefits being denied support under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act.

The House already acted affirmatively on the legislation in April.

Until now, the benefits had been considered income under NAHASDA, thus reducing support. NAHASDA was passed in 1996 to allow tribal communities to more easily access housing grants by providing support to families who make less than 80 percent of the median income of their area.

The flaw was fixed under the legislation by specifically excluding veterans’ benefits from the definition of income.

The problem was brought to the attention of Congress last year by members of the Navajo Nation who were facing the issue. Passage of the bill ultimately became the Navajo Housing Authority’s top legislative priority for the 111th Congress.

Indian groups were widespread in their support.

“NAIHC is extremely thankful to the Senate for passing the bill in this session, and for recognizing that many Indian veterans and their families will benefit from this significant legislation. Our Native veterans are an integral part of all tribal communities, and to offer them a chance at affordable housing is essential,” said Cheryl A. Causley, chair of the National American Indian Housing Council.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., introduced the bill last September at the request of the Navajo Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners

“Native Americans have made incredible sacrifices to keep our country safe, and it is unacceptable that Native veterans and their families have been unable to receive the benefits they have earned for so many years,” Kirkpatrick said. “We cannot let our nation’s heroes be punished for their service to our country. Enacting this bill into law will finally right this wrong.”

Senate efforts were led by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and John Thune, R-S.D.

“These Native American veterans are already struggling with wounds they suffered from serving our country and certainly shouldn’t shoulder extra financial burdens because of some legislative defect,” Wyden said. “Fixing this unjust flaw in the system is the right thing to do for our veterans, and should be done as fast as possible.”

Kirkpatrick is now asking the BIA to correct a similar problem with its Housing Improvement Program that is also causing problems for Native veterans.