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Introduces bipartisan bill to establish a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) joined U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to introduce bipartisan legislation to improve VA outreach, health care and benefits for Native American veterans through establishment of a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs. The Advisory Committee will facilitate communication and understanding between the VA and Tribal governments to better address the unique barriers Native American veterans face when accessing VA services.

“Native veterans in New Mexico and across Indian Country who put their lives on the line deserve not just our gratitude but unbarred access to the VA services we promised them,” said Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “This bipartisan legislation to establish a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs will promote meaningful government-to-government consultation with Tribes and will create solutions to ensure VA programs work for all Native veterans.”

“Native Americans have served our nation in uniform at a historically high rate, but many Native American veterans face barriers and roadblocks to the care and benefits they earned,” said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Our bipartisan bill will improve the collaboration and communication between tribes and the VA and make sure Native American veterans have a voice in crafting solutions that work best for all veterans living in Indian Country.”

“Last fall, Secretary Wilkie and I hosted a productive roundtable with Native veterans on the health care and access challenges impacting this special, patriotic group in Alaska and across the country,” said Sullivan. “I’m pleased to have used these ideas and suggestions to shape this legislation that will give greater voice to a community with a proud history of bravely answering the call to serve, even during the darker times in our nation’s history.”

“America’s first people have served America in distinction in every conflict for the past two centuries. Yet, it seems it is only in this past decade that the VA has been paying special attention to the needs of Native veterans, many of whom live in the most remote corners of the country, hundreds of miles from the nearest VA facility—places like Bethel, Fort Yukon, Kotzebue, Nome and Utqiagvik, Alaska,” said Murkowski. “Out of respect for the government-to-government relationship between the VA and our nation’s tribes, it is appropriate that Native people have a seat at the table as the VA establishes its service priorities.”

The VA Tribal Advisory Committee Act will establish a 15-member Committee comprised of a representative from each of the 12 regions of the Indian Health Service and three at-large Native American members. At least half of the Committee members must be veterans. The Committee will facilitate communication between the VA and Tribal governments, meet face-to-face with the VA Secretary to provide guidance on Tribal and Indian Affairs, and report to Congress its recommendations for legislation to improve Native American veterans’ access to VA health care and benefits.

The legislation has received support from the National Indian Health Board and National Congress of American Indians.

“The National Indian Health Board is pleased to see legislation introduced to help honor the government-to-government relationship between Tribes and the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said Andrew Joseph Jr., NIHB Board Member and U.S. Army veteran. “The Tribal Advisory Committee Act is an important first step in facilitating meaningful consultation between the Tribes and the VA. This will help fulfill the federal government’s obligation to provide health care to those who have earned our highest respect with their sacrifice – Native Veterans.  NIHB looks forward to working with the bill’s sponsors as it moves through Congress.”

“Our tribal nations have always held our citizens that serve in the highest esteem,” said Jefferson Keel, President of the National Congress of American Indians and retired U.S. Army Officer. “Too often our American Indian and Alaska Native veterans have difficulty accessing the benefits they earned through their military service. The Department of Veterans Affairs Tribal Advisory Committee Act will help eliminate barriers that prevent our Native veterans from accessing those benefits.”

The full text of the VA Tribal Advisory Committee Act is available HERE.

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