The following is a message from Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT for American Indian veterans.
Montana is home to more than 5,000 Native American veterans. The percentage of Indian people who serve America’s military is higher than any other ethnic group. To all of them, I say thank you.
Veterans deserve the best health care possible when they come home. And American Indian veterans should be no exception. After all, they earned it. But we have more work to do.
Too many Native American veterans don’t have access to quality health care and support services. They struggle to overcome bureaucratic hurdles and rural isolation. And a lack of local health care providers and high rates of unemployment add to the challenge.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress. As Montana’s only member of the Senate’s Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committees, I’ve improved coordination between the Indian Health Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I’ve increased support for Tribal Veterans Representatives and Tribal Veteran Service Centers. I’ve improved transportation options for veterans travelling between reservations and Vet Centers. And I’ve made better mental health care for Native American veterans a priority.
Right after becoming your senator, I began hearing about American Indians getting the run around from the VA and the IHS. The VA told veterans to go to the IHS because they were Indian and the IHS sent them back to the VA because they were veterans. It was bureaucratic mismanagement at its worst.
I encouraged the agencies to work together. A recent Memorandum of Understanding between the VA, the IHS, and the Blackfeet Nation sets the terms and conditions for providing primary health care to Native American veterans. It explicitly requires the agencies to work together to improve the health of Blackfeet veterans.
Sometimes, however, the challenge is getting rural veterans to local clinics in the first place. That’s why we need the VA to deploy veterans vans transport veterans between reservations and VA facilities.
It should be clear: veterans who live further from VA facilities are not less deserving of care.
Improving the lives of Native American veterans requires improving the quality of life across all of Indian country. It means making sure communities are safe, that our children attend good schools, and that Native American men and women can find good jobs.
Our veterans return home expecting to receive the care they earned. They deserve strong communities – and a system ready to care for them.
I’ll keep making it my goal to honor our promises and ensure we take care of our brave Native American veterans.
Senator Jon Tester, D-MT, is a third generation Montana farmer.