Skip to main content

Veteran Affairs Expanding Access and Visibility for Native Vets

Dr. Tommy Sowers, VA assistant secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs discussed the department’s efforts to expand access and visibility for Native vets.

After a visit to the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kansas on July 2, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Dr. Tommy Sowers met with Potawatomi and Kickapoo tribal leaders to discuss efforts in the VA to increase the accessibility and visibility of American Indian veterans.

In an interview with ICTMN after his meeting, Sowers said that after first listening to the concerns of tribal leaders, he wanted to share that the two most important issues currently being addressed by the VA are making sure veterans know and understand their benefits and that the delivery of care in remote and rural areas that do not have a VA facility should be supported and not bogged down with policy to ensure Native veterans receive the care they need.

“The VA has done a couple of things,” Sowers said. “It has really led the way with health and medicine to deliver the care to where the veteran needs it. With mail order prescriptions, the VA is by far the leader in mail order prescriptions. This means Native American veterans don't have to drive into a facility just to get a prescription refilled. There are also innovative partnerships with IHS.”

According to Sowers, since Native Americans have the highest rates of enlistment into the armed services and that there are well over 500 sovereign tribes with specific and unique concerns, the desire for the Obama Administration and the VA to have a continuous and open relationship with tribes is a major priority.

“We understand and fully respect that we're dealing with over 566 tribal nations. We realize that there are very specific and unique concerns when you are dealing with sovereign entities,” he said.

Because the VA has been willing to speak with tribes so openly, noted Sowers, they are constantly learning ways to improve the VA’s relationship with tribes.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“For example, today we heard about peyote. I don't hear about peyote in many meetings, but it is a very specific issue of religious freedom and something that the VA is committed to addressing. This could be just in terms of use – and its use – which is something that is part of their religion – could be something that could have precluded them from access to VA benefits,” Sowers said.

Sowers also said that the initiatives in place such as the 2010 VA-IHS Memorandum of Understanding in which the VA and Indian Health Service (IHS) can talk to each other for increased clarity; the 2011 Tribal Consultation Policy in which the VA continues their discussion with tribes; and the 2012 Reimbursement Agreement, in which the VA more easily reimburses IHS facilities for the benefit of Native vets – are all working well for an ultimately better experience for vets.

“It doesn't make a lot of sense if you already have an IHS facility to build a VA right next to it – this is a way to reimburse the IHS or the tribe for the veterans that are receiving care and making it easier,” he said.

Overall, Sowers said the meeting was a success.

“From the top down, the secretary [Eric Shinseki] wants to make sure the VA is doing positive outreach.

This is important, this is everyone's VA – it is very important that tribes have the access they need in the burbs,” said Sowers.

“It was very positive, very productive and it just demonstrates a renewed commitment that we have in making sure Native American veterans receive the care and benefits they deserve,” said Sowers. “This is a continued consultation with tribes. This is something we are definitely not going to slow down on and we look forward to seeing more facilities in educating folks on what we're doing at the VA.”