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The Oklahoman: Cole bill aims to improve mental health care for Native American vets

August 28, 2020
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Oklahoman - Chris Casteel

Native American and Alaska Native veterans would receive mental health care that's appropriate to their cultures under legislation announced Thursday by U.S. Rep. Tom Cole.

If the measure becomes law, every U.S. Veterans Affairs Department medical facility would be required to have on staff a minority veteran coordinator trained to deliver "culturally competent mental health care" for Native veterans.

Cole, R-Moore, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, said Native Americans have enlisted in the U.S. military at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group.

"Like all veterans, Native Americans who have served in uniform deserve the best care and service the VA can provide," Cole said.

"Therefore, it is critically important that VA medical personnel are equipped to recognize, understand and address their unique needs. I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing the American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans Mental Health Act, which would provide for trained minority coordinators in VA facilities and ensure our Native veterans receive the care and attention as it is needed."

The bill, which does not authorize additional funding for the VA Department, is cosponsored by Reps. Julia Brownley, D-California, and Xochitl Torres Small, D-New Mexico.

Brownley, who leads the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on Health, said, "For hundreds of years, Native Americans have fought to defend our nation and it's time that we provide them with culturally appropriate mental health care as a part of the holistic care that Native veterans receive from VA."

The bill would require that each VA minority veteran coordinator work with the facility's suicide prevention coordinator to contact local tribal leadership, provide the VA medical facility director with an annual written plan for specific outreach to Native veterans and document the mental health care provided, according to Cole's office.

The VA would have to provide data on the minority status, tribal enrollment and second language capacity of VA mental health care providers.

Small said, "The creation of a specialized position to meet the unique needs of minority and Native American veterans can be a crucial tool to tackle the veteran suicide epidemic and I appreciate working with Representatives Brownley and Cole to find creative solutions to support our veterans."

The legislation is backed by several groups, including the American Psychiatric Association, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and the American Society for Suicide Prevention, according to Cole's office.

The Oklahoman: Online