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Witness Testimony of Col. Reginald Malebranche, USA (Ret.), Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, Member, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Michaud, Chairman Hall, and Members of the Subcommittees, I am indeed pleased to represent the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans, give you our views on the services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to Minority Veterans; on VA’s present and future strategies addressing the needs of this growing population; and VA’s outreach efforts towards Minority Veterans.

The Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (Committee) was established in November 1994, pursuant to Public Law 103-146.  The Committee is tasked with assessing the needs of minority veteran populations, and reporting back to the Secretary on the effectiveness of VA programs and services at meeting those needs.  The Committee works in close coordination and collaboration with the Center for Minority Veterans (Center) and relies on the expertise of Center staff for current information about VA programs, policies and services.

The Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans members are appointed by the Secretary, and serve at his/her discretion.  The majority of the Committee members are veterans and are representative of the five minority groups – African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Native American (including Alaskan Native, American Indian, and Native Hawaiian). 

As a means of obtaining information regarding the delivery of health care and services to minority veterans, the Committee conducts an annual site visit to a selected VA facility with a high density of minority veterans.  During these visits, the Committee tours the facilities and meets with senior VA officials to discuss services and programs available to minority veterans.  The Committee also hosts open forums with Veteran Services Organizations with the local veterans, to encourage them to discuss issues, problem areas, and seek information related to VA benefits and services. 

The Committee meets once a year at VA Central Office and receives briefings from the VA Senior leadership, the Center for Minority Veterans, Veterans Health Administration ( VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), National Cemetery Administration ( NCA) and other staff offices.  These briefings update the Advisory Committee on the status of VA programs and address issues and concerns raised during the site visits.  

In its 2006 Report on the Greater Los Angeles Health Care System, April 3 – 7, 2006, the Advisory Committee made eleven recommendations, with the key issues being Outreach, Research, Staff Diversity, Seamless Transition, and the Native American Veteran Housing Loan Program. 

During its visit to the Los Angeles Ambulatory Care Center, The Committee was dismayed by the staggering number of homeless veterans.  Twenty-three percent (23% or 21,424) of the 90,000 homeless populations in Los Angeles were reported to be veterans.  The Committee was encouraged by the range of programs identified by VA for homeless veterans.  Yet, the Committee was concerned that those programs may not reach the targeted audience.  There was insufficient evidence that outreach programs had been designed and publicized to a level to ensure that homeless minority veterans were aware of their existence.  The Committee believed that similar situations may affect the homeless veteran population throughout the Continental United States and its Territories. 

What outreach efforts are being conducted by VA to minority veterans?

Outreach is a major challenge for the VA.  During its sessions with Veteran Services Organizations, and with minority veterans, at its town hall meeting, the Committee learned that the major issue was that minority veterans were unaware of their VA benefits, and other VA services available.  The Committee recognized that VA made strides to reach out to minority veterans and inform them of their benefits and the services available.  The Committee noted that VA had developed and distributed comprehensive and illustrative pamphlets.  However, the Committee believes that additional resources such as publishing and distributing a veterans' magazine similar to the VA employee magazine Vanguard, could be utilized to inform veterans of their entitlements.    

Transportation to VA centers, in major metropolitan, rural and isolated areas, is a major impediment for minority veterans.  Accessibility, affordability, and distances to VA centers are major problems affecting minority veterans.  Although Veterans Services organizations and many non-profit organizations provide some forms of relief, the Committee noted that a major segment of the minority veterans were not within easy or affordable reach to VA centers.

Much remained to be accomplished in the area of outreach.  The Committee recognized that it is not simply a VA challenge.  Several of its members have taken the mantle to assist VA in its quest to reach out to minority veterans.  Committee members head Veterans Services Organizations and insure that the VA’s efforts are well publicized and supported.  Others visit medical centers and hold informal meetings with minority veterans to ensure that those veterans, and/or their family members/ friends/acquaintances are aware of their entitlements and benefits.

The challenge to reach all minority veterans will require a concerted effort of VA, other federal and state agencies, Veterans Services Organizations, members of the Committee, and the public to make sure that all veterans are keenly aware of their entitlements.

What are the present and future needs of those growing populations and what strategies does VA have for meeting them?

Access to Care
Minority veterans’ access to care is a major challenge for VA, particularly for minority veterans in large metropolitan areas, in rural and isolated areas.  For example the plight of Alaska Natives, living in rural and isolated areas of the state, cannot be ignored; and neither can the plight of minority veterans living in rural and isolated areas within the Continental United States.  The challenge for VA is to continue to develop and implement innovative programs which target those minority veteran populations. 

Rural and remote areas such as Alaska and the Navajo Nation may be good areas to test rural health initiatives.  VA could enter in a reimbursable agreement with all Alaska Natives’ organizations, the Health and Human Services and Indian Health Service to reach out to all minority veterans and provide all the services, which fall within the realm of the VA.

The Committee applauds the strides made by VA in expanding its telehealth and telemedicine programs, and its ability to reach a significant number of the minority veteran population.  Yet, those programs are not stand alone, and will require significant investment and training.

Mental Health 
Mental health is and will become a major challenge.  The Committee recognizes the efforts and the programs put forth by VA to support, identify, and care for soldiers, sailors and airmen, who have served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom theaters of operations.  The early identification of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will certainly help in the observation and treatment of all veterans who served in those areas.  Yet, the Advisory Committee is concerned that the same level of services might not be readily available to minority veterans who have served in prior conflicts. 

The Committee is also concerned that an interoperable electronic health record has not been developed to embrace all Uniformed Services personnel.  

Benefits
The processing and adjudication of benefits seem to affect all veterans.      The Committee recognized the initiatives approved by the Congress to improve the processing and adjudication of benefits by VA.  The Veterans Claims Assistance Act of 2000 – Public Law 106-475 – puts the onus on VA to maximize its assistance to all veterans and to make them aware of their entitlements.        

Staff Diversity
Senior staff diversity remains an issue at VA.  The absence of minorities at the senior staff level has been and continues to be noticeable during site visits.  Data presented and subscribed by VA suggests that VA’s problem is limited to recruiting white females, and Hispanics.  Yet, other data maintained at VA suggested that minorities were not well represented at senior staff levels.  The Committee was concerned at the inconsistency of the data, and its implications for minority veterans and the minority population at VA.

How is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serving minorities through its current programs?

The professionalism, the expertise shown by VA personnel was striking.  The Committee noted in several instances that VA’s efforts in most areas were only limited by personnel and time.  There was a perception that most staff would endeavor to do all possible for a veteran.  The challenge is to include minority veterans in that equation and philosophy. 

VA’s strides in supporting veterans are especially noteworthy.  Thank you for this opportunity to address the Subcommittees.  I would be happy to address any questions you may have.