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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

National Congress of American Indians
Washingotn, DC
February 24, 2016

Tribal leaders; tribal elders; Veterans; NCAI President, Brian Cladoosby; Jackie Johnson-Pata [NCAI Executive Director]; and members of the NCAI Executive Committee:

Good morning. I’m honored to be back with you and so many leaders who are committed to serving Veterans better.

Let me ask all Veterans who are able to stand and be recognized.

Thanks to you all—for your service and your sacrifices, and those of your families, as well.

At VA, we respect tribal governments, and we are grateful for the strong government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian Tribes. As President Obama said during the White House Tribal Nations Conference last November, “[T]he success of our tribal communities is tied up with the success of America as a whole."

Well, since President Obama signed the Memorandum on Tribal Consultation in 2009, VA has worked closely with tribal leaders and other partners on behalf of Native Veterans. Our 2010 Memorandum of Understanding with Indian Health Service has increased American Indian and Alaska Native Veteran access to care. In 2012, VA and Indian Health Service signed a national reimbursement agreement that allows VA to reimburse IHS for care of eligible Veterans. Since then, VA has reimbursed IHS and Tribal Health Programs almost $35 million for direct care services provided to Veterans.

VA also collaborates with tribal and IHS partners to deliver services in or near Indian Country by sharing clinic space and delivering telehealth services in many tribal and IHS clinics. VA’s Office of Rural Health has invested $3.9 million in 13 initiatives emphasizing health care access in the areas of mental health, home-based primary care, telehealth, and eligibility services. Nearly 6,000 Veterans who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native were reached.

Our National Reimbursement Agreement with IHS now consists of 85 implementation plans covering 108 Indian Health Service sites. And we have 86 reimbursement agreements with Tribal Health Programs. More are in process.

So, our work together has led to notable achievements advancing health-care access, and we’ll continue to make every effort to respect tribal sovereignty—to consult with tribes before we make decisions that may affect tribal members.

In the coming weeks, I'll be initiating tribal consultation on proposed amendments to Part 14 of Title 38. These amendments would recognize qualified tribal organizations ‎so that they could assist Veterans in the preparation and presentation of their VA benefit claims. The feedback of tribal leaders and Veterans advocates is critical in informing VA on how to proceed with this proposed change.

These are a few of our ongoing efforts to strengthen our partnerships and alliances with tribal governments in achieving our shared, clear, and noble mission—to care for those who have “borne the battle” and their families.

That’s not just VA’s mission. Taking care of Veterans is a mission for the entire country, and it’s a mission that’s very personal to me.

My wife, Diane, and I come from families with strong traditions of military service. Diane’s father was shot down over Europe and survived harsh treatment as a P.O.W. My father served in the Army Air Corps after World War II. Diane’s uncle served in Vietnam, where he was exposed to Agent Orange. He still receives VA care. And today, my nephew has returned from flying missions over the Middle East and now commands a fighter squadron in North Carolina.

For myself, I graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1975. My time at West Point and then as an Airborne Ranger with the 82d Airborne Division, instilled in me strong values and a lifelong sense of duty to country. Now, nearly four decades later, simple words from West Point’s Cadet Prayer still guide me. That prayer encourages us “to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong.”

I will always do the right thing for Veterans. I’ll always work hard to understand their needs and change VA into the Veteran-centric enterprise they have earned and deserve—and that taxpayers expect. And that’s my commitment to all of you.

That’s the same commitment I made to you in October 2014 in Atlanta. It’s the same commitment I made last September at the National Indian Health Board Consumer Conference here in D.C.

My commitment to Indian country is especially important. Nearly 27,000 American Indian and Alaska Native Servicemembers are defending our freedom today, and there are over 150,000 Native Veterans. All of them rightly expect the Nation to fulfill our obligations with the same degree of dignity and fidelity with which they put their lives on the line for our country, and we’re fulfilling that commitment with our five MyVA transformational objectives to modernize VA:

  • First, improve the Veteran experience to be seamless, integrated, and responsive;
  • Second, improve the employee experience, focusing on people and culture to better serve Veterans;
  • Third, improve our internal support services;
  • Fourth, establish a culture of continuous improvement that can identify and correct problems faster and replicate solutions nationwide;
  • And fifth—and this one involves all of you—enhance strategic partnerships. That means building vital networks of collaborative relationships across federal, state, tribal, and local governments and with both non-profit and for-profit organizations.

For this year, we’ve narrowed our near-term focus to 12 “breakthrough priorities” designed to improve the delivery of timely care and benefits to Veterans. Altogether, our 5 transformational objectives and 12 Breakthrough Priorities for 2016 are about growing VA into a high performing organization.

We understand this will be a challenge, but we are committed to producing results for Veterans, and the President’s proposed budget continues support of those priorities into FY2017. It’s a strong budget—another tangible sign of the President’s devotion to Veterans and their families.

I know that ending Veterans homelessness is particularly important to you, so let me point out that the proposed budget provides funding to support and sustain progress we’ve made.

Overall, Veteran homelessness has declined 36% in the last five years. Since 2010, more than 360,000 Veterans and their family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness.

A very important program in the fight against Veteran Homelessness is the Department of Housing and Urban Development—VA Supportive Housing program. That’s HUD-VASH, for short. HUD-VASH is a collaborative program between HUD and VA. It provides eligible homeless Veterans a voucher and supportive services that help with challenges like physical and mental health problems, substance use disorders, and other issues contributing to homelessness.

Tribal HUD-VASH will provide homeless and at risk American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans housing access in their tribal trust lands. They will have stable, decent, and safe housing with case management services to help them stay housed where their natural supports, spirituality, and community cultural activities are readily available.

For 2016, HUD has allocated $5.9 million for the implementation of Tribal HUD-VASH. The 2017 Budget requests $1.6 billion for VA’s homelessness-related programs, including rural health programs, VA justice programs, and case-management support for HUD-VASH. VA points of contact are talking with tribal leaders and tribally designated housing representatives about implementation of the case-management aspect of HUD-VASH.

For a moment, I’d like to talk about Veterans Treatment Courts. Veterans Treatment Courts directly support our shared effort to end homelessness among Veterans. You see, incarceration is the most powerful predictor of homelessness, and Veteran involvement in the criminal justice system and Veteran homelessness often go hand in hand. So, we want to reach Veterans in the criminal justice system and link them to VA clinical and other services that can address their unmet needs.

Veterans Treatment Courts help ensure eligible justice-involved Veterans have timely access to VA mental health, substance abuse, and other VA services and benefits. Veteran Justice Outreach specialists already work with American Indians involved in the criminal justice system. A Veterans Court judge and other court staff supervise the legal case, VA and other community providers deliver treatment, and volunteer Veteran mentors provide moral support and camaraderie.

The Veterans Court model is a perfect example of communities coming together to serve Veterans in a holistic way. The Hopi Tribe in Arizona is the first tribe to receive free training on how to implement a Veterans Treatment Court, and they plan to start theirs this year.

We want to work with you to help make Veterans Treatment Courts happen on all Tribal lands. We’re committed to doing this and everything we can to make a difference in Veterans’ lives. But we need the help of Congress, VSOs, the National Congress of American Indians, and every tribal leader and elder to ensure we accomplish our noble mission.

VA’s Director of Tribal Government Relations, Stephanie Birdwell, and her regional specialists are singularly committed to facilitating VA's Tribal Consultation Policy, increasing access to health care, and promoting economic sustainability.

Let me ask Stephanie to stand so I can introduce her.

If you have questions about anything related to Native American or Alaska Native Veterans, call her at 202-461-7400. I want to make sure your questions are answered so we keep progressing in tangible, relevant ways.

On behalf of the entire VA, thank you for all that you are doing to help the Nation’s Veterans. God bless you, our Veterans, and our great Nation.