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Native veteran priorities addressed at Tribal Health Conference

Denis McDonough addresses the crowd at the National Tribal Healthcare Conference in Rapid City
C.J. Keene
Denis McDonough addresses the crowd at the National Tribal Healthcare Conference in Rapid City

The National Tribal Health Conference was held in Rapid City this year, a major event for the Monument theater downtown. With 1,600 attendees, the event also brought key figures from DC.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs secretary Denis McDonough spoke to attendees about the current administration’s priorities relating to veterans, with a particular emphasis on indigenous perspectives.

“You’ll remember, back in November of 2022 I made a commitment to you guys," McDonough said. "I said we’d have a copay exemption in place for American Indians and Alaska Natives by years end. We missed it by a couple of months, but we got it done last spring, and it’s making a difference. Over 6,000 vets have applied for the waiver.”

Despite that early success, McDonough said there are over 60,000 eligible Native veterans who still haven’t applied for those benefits.

“My concern is – how many Native vets just don’t know this benefit is waiting for them? I want to ask for your help," McDonough said. "That’s the same approach we’re taking on reimbursement, expanding the scope of support for Native vets.”

Information about how to apply for that program can be found on the VA's website.

Another current priority for the VA is to expand access to traditional medicine and mental health treatments for Indigenous vets.

“When I talk about meeting vets where they are, I’m talking spiritually, mentally, and culturally as well," McDonough said. "Now, we already offer traditional medicine at some of our facilities, but we need more formal recognition and integration of traditional healing as part of our healthcare programs. So, IHS director Roselyn Tso is fighting alongside us.”

Also near the top of the priority list is rural outreach, particularly on reservation settings.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture