January 24, 2017

Coburn blocks veterans’ health bill

Members of the Cherokee Nation Color Guard salute the flag during a dawn ceremony held each year during the tribe's annual holiday celebration. PHOTO LISA SNELL/NATIVE TIMESIt contains provisions intended to benefit Native American vets.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – A day after the United States honored its military veterans in the month that honors Native American heritage, Sen. Tom Coburn reaffirmed his decision to block a veterans’ health care bill containing provisions for American Indian vets.

In a Nov. 12 town hall meeting in Altus, Okla., the Oklahoma Republican senator explained his reasons for blocking Senate Bill 1963, the Veterans’ Caregiver and Omnibus Health Benefits Act of 2009. He said the problems are financial and the bill discriminates against veterans from wars prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“Did you know we borrowed 43 cents on every dollar we spent this past year?” he explained to the crowd. “Think about that. We’re leaving debt for our grandchildren. We’re spending out of control, and we even did that under Republican control. So it’s not a party thing. It’s a government thing.”
According to Coburn’s Senate Web site, the bill also duplicates an existing program that helps veterans care for themselves. The senator has drafted an amendment he said deals with benefits for all veterans and cuts non-essential programs to pay for the bill.
The amendment was not available at press time, but Coburn’s press secretary assured the Native American Times the original provisions for Native American veterans were in the amendment. As of press time, the Senate was scheduled to vote Nov. 16 on Coburn’s motion.
Key provisions of S. 1963 would provide a stipend and other support for caregivers of severely disabled veterans, improve health care offered by the U.S. Veterans’ Affairs, expand service for those in rural areas, ensure equal access to female veterans and address homelessness among veterans.

Senate Bill 1963, or the Veterans’ Caregiver and Omnibus  Health Benefits Act of 2009, also addresses Native American veterans’ health care by directing the Veterans’ Affairs to establish Indian health coordinators in areas with high Native American veteran populations to improve care given to Indian veterans.

According to the act, the Indian health coordinator would:

• Improve outreach to tribal communities,

• Coordinate medical needs of Indian veterans on Indian reservations with the Veterans Health Administration and the Indian Health Service,

• Expand access and participation of the VA, IHS and tribal members in the VA’s Tribal Veterans Representative program,

• Act as an ombudsman for Indian veterans enrolled in the VHA health care system and,

• Advocate for the incorporation of traditional medicine and healing in VA treatment plans for Indian veterans in need of care and services provided by the VA.

The bill also provides for integration of electronic health records between the VA and Inidan Health Service and permits the transfer and installation of surplus medical equipment to IHS from the VA. The secretaries of the VA and Health and Human Services must also report on the feasibility of a joint establishment and operation of health clinics on Indian reservations to serve those populations, including Indian veterans.
“I see a great benefit to IHS, to VA, to our tribal communities and our tribal veterans with VA and IHS working closer together,” Kellen Palmer, Native American Veteran Program coordinator at the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee, said. “There is a shared population to address and there is a lot of room for collaboration and development of resource sharing, agreements and partnerships. I have come across a lot of Native veterans who knew nothing of the VA, or their eligibility for VA care, VA benefits and the many services/specialty clinics available through the VA. Bringing both entities together can only help to benefit Native veterans.”
Health organizations of federally recognized tribes would also qualify for some of the same programs available to state veteran’s homes under S. 1963. Qualifying tribally operated health facilities would receive the same treatment as state-run facilities and may be awarded grants in the same manner.
But Coburn has refused to release his hold on the bill so it can be considered for a vote, even though it has the backing of Republicans and Democrats on the VA Committee.
“I support many of the goals of this legislation, but we simply cannot continue to spend billions on new programs without paying for them,” he said. “If senators would pay for this program and make a few common sense changes, this bill could pass the Senate today. Unfortunately, bill sponsors are more interested in holding press conferences and playing political games than doing the hard work of legislating.”
Coburn said he would drop his hold if Democrats agreed to offset its cost, which he said is estimated at $3.7 billion over five years, by cutting other programs.
He proposes eliminating earmarks for defense projects not requested by the president and reducing U.S. contributions to the United Nations, which are approximately $ billion annually.
According to a Nov. 13 news release, Coburn filed a motion that would address his concerns by directing that care be provided immediately, be paid for by eliminating lower-priority spending and be guaranteed to all disabled veterans regardless of the war in which they were injured.
“The amendment would expand the eligibility of the new benefits to all disabled veterans injured in military conflicts prior to and after Sept. 11, 2001, while S. 1963 restricts eligibility to only those vets injured since that date,” Coburn said.
The bill specifically names mental health, specialized residential care and readjustment services for veterans of Operationa Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. It also addresses concerns and health issues specific to the women vets of both operations.
Democrats have accused Coburn of putting budget concerns over veterans and their families.

“Our veterans are too important to play politics with,” Sen. Jon Tester, D – Mont., said. “This is an important bill because it will live up to the promises made to veterans, and specifically Native American veterans. I appreciate the bipartisan support from the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Senate should pass the bill because it addresses the challenges veterans face across Montana and rural America.”