Indian vets getting better VA care

The Billings Gazette

by Martin Kidston

A pair of health care workers dedicated to improving access for Indian veterans seeking medical treat-ment in Montana will testify before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs this week.

The two Montana advocates will travel to Washington, D.C., for Thursday's hearing to share their successes and lingering needs while the VA aims to improve services for Indian and rural vets across the country.

Kevin Howlett, who directs Tribal Health for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, will testify at Thursday's hearing, along with Buck Richardson, the minority program coordinator with the Rocky Mountain Healthcare Network.

Richardson, who splits time between Denver and Helena and often works from Fort Harrison, said Montana's progress in providing better health care to Indian vets has become a national model.

"One of the biggest challenges our Indian veterans have is access," Richardson said Tuesday. "The VA committee wants to know what we've done with (Indian Health Services), and to increase health care access to Indian vets and rural vets."

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the VA committee and author of the Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act, requested the hearing last month.

"With this hearing, we'll be able to dig deeper into the challenges facing Montana's Indian veterans and how we can better get them the care they've earned," Tester said. "It's never been more important for these different agencies to be talking and working together effectively."

In particular, Tester said, the committee will look closely at the relationship between the VA and In-dian Health Services, or IHS, and their performance when delivering health care to vets living on reser-vations.

More than 4,500 Native Americans are enrolled in the VA. The actual number of Indian vets in the state, however, is believed to be much higher.

Per capita, Montana has one of the nation's highest veteran populations in the country.

Richardson said former Montana Adjutant General Gene Prendergast challenged health care advo-cates in 2001 by asking them to improve access and services to Montana's Indian veterans.

The group responded to the challenge by training nine tribal veteran representatives, or TVRs, in Montana. More than 227 TVRs have since been trained and now serve in other states including Alaska, Alabama, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

"We realized back in 2001 that there was a huge disconnect between the organizations," Richardson said. "A lot of Indian vets didn't know what their benefits were."

Richardson said several other improvements are still being made to increase access and awareness for Indian vets.

Among them, he cited a growing telemed program, which allows Indian vets to speak with counselors from the University of Colorado.

The program is up and running on five Montana reservations, and Richardson is currently working to get similar sites online by year's end at the Flathead and Blackfeet reservations.

Around 4,000 DVDs focused on post-traumatic stress disorder and available treatment are also being distributed to every VA and IHS facility in the nation, Richardson said.

"The VA committee will ask us to discuss some of the services and cooperation that we've been able to create here over the last 10 years between the tribes and IHS," Richardson said. "They'll ask us how we're bringing increased services and benefits to our Indian vets."