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Witness Testimony of Lucretia M. McClenney, Center for Minority Veterans, Director, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Chairman Hall, Chairman Michaud, and members of the Subcommittees, I appreciate the opportunity to come before you today to discuss the mission of the Center for Minority Veterans and address your specific questions on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) service to minority veterans through its current programs; present and future strategies addressing the needs of this growing population; and outreach efforts being conducted by VA to minority veterans. 

Center for Minority Veterans
The Center for Minority Veterans was created by Public Law 103-446, in November 1994.  The Director of the Center serves as primary advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs on all issues related to minority veterans.

Our Mission
The mission of the Center for Minority Veterans includes serving in an advisory role to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary on the adoption and implementation of policies and programs affecting veterans who are minorities; making recommendations to senior VA officials for the establishment or improvement of programs; promoting minority veterans’ use of benefits; analyzing and evaluating complaints made by or on behalf of minority veterans; and consulting with, and providing assistance and information to external local, state and federal stakeholders.

Who We Serve
The Center serves all veterans regardless of race or ethnicity, but pursuant to Public Law 103-446, the Center’s primary emphasis is on minority veterans.  Specifically, veterans who are:  African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics, or Native Americans, including American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. 

How is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serving minority veterans through its current programs?

Minority Veterans Program Coordinators (MVPC)
To establish a national presence and to ensure issues are addressed at the local level, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in 1995 directed the appointment of Minority Veterans Program Coordinators (MVPCs) at each VA Health Care Facility, Regional Benefits Office and National Cemetery.  There are approximately 300 MVPCs across the Nation.  The Center provides training to MVPCs in cultural competency and outreach strategies.  These coordinators educate and sensitize facility personnel to the needs of minority veterans in the community and promote the use of VA benefits, programs and services by minority veterans.  In addition, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) and National Cemeteries Administration (NCA) each have designated a Central Office MVPC Liaison.  The Center staff meets monthly with these liaisons and quarterly with the senior leadership of each Administration to discuss outreach activities, issues and concerns that impact minority veterans. 

The Center has converted the coordinators’ annual written report to a quarterly web based report to provide greater visibility on their outreach efforts, identify opportunities for improvement, benchmark best practices and recognize the Minority Veterans Program Coordinator of the Quarter and Year for each Administration. 

Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (ACMV)
The Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans (ACMV) was also established under Public Law 103-446.  The Committee is composed of veterans of all ranks and services appointed by the Secretary.  Members represent the five minority groups the Center is mandated to oversee.  The Committee advises the Secretary and Congress on VA’s administration of benefits and provision of health care to minority veterans; assessing the needs of minority veterans, reviewing VA programs and activities designed to meet those needs and developing recommendations to address unmet needs. 

The Committee submits an annual report to the Secretary incorporating its findings and recommendations.  In order to assess the delivery of health care services and benefits, the Committee conducts two meetings annually (one site visit and one business meeting).  During the site visits the Committee tours VA facilities (of all three Administrations), meets with senior officials to discuss services and programs available for minority veterans, and conducts Town Hall meetings for local veterans and the community to hear firsthand their concerns and/or issues.  The Committee meets once annually at VA Central Office (VACO) and receives briefings from VHA, VBA and NCA and other staff offices.  These briefings provide the Advisory Committee an update on current VA policies and programs and afford them the opportunity to discuss their findings and concerns impacting minority veterans. 

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

Needs of Minority Veterans:
In many instances, any challenges that minority veterans encounter as they seek services from VA are magnified by the adverse conditions in their local communities.  These challenges may include access to VA medical facilities (especially for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Pacific Islanders, and other veterans residing in rural, remote or urban areas), disparities in health care centered on diseases and illnesses that disproportionately effect minorities, homelessness, unemployment, lack of clear understanding of VA claims processing and benefit programs, limited medical research and limited statistical data related to minority veterans.

Cultural competency and diversity training assist VA employees when serving our very diverse minority veteran population. 

VA Strategies to Meet the Needs of Minority Veterans include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Access to VA medical care has been addressed by dramatically increasing the number of Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOC).  In 1995, VA had 102 Community Based Outpatient Clinics and by 2000, VA had 600 Community Based Outpatient Clinics.  In the second quarter of 2007, 872 Ambulatory Care and Outpatient Clinics were in operation.  One hundred Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom Patient Advocates have recently been assigned to assist our newest veterans as they seek care from VA.
  • VA is addressing homelessness in the minority veteran population by partnering with community stakeholders; enhancing outreach activities; and expanding VA’s Grant and Per Diem Program. 
  • In 2001, VA's Office of Research and Development created a Center of Excellence for Research aimed at identifying factors which cause disparities in health outcomes across racial, ethnic, and gender lines, as well as ways for promoting equity in health and health care.  This center, co-located at two sites (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia), has 29 core investigators who have contributed over 128 peer-reviewed scientific articles over the past two years.
  • The Center is working with VHA’s Office of Health Services Research and Development and the Center for Health Equity Research Program to target minority groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo Soldiers, Montford Point Marines, and National Congress for American Indians by actively encouraging minority veteran’s participation in research programs.
  • Since 2003, VHA has encouraged minority veterans to voluntarily self identify by racial and ethnic groups to assist in data retrieval of minority veteran demographics and utilization of VA services and benefits.
  • VA’s Office of Patient Care Services is developing a three year phased educational cultural competency curriculum for clinicians and administrative leadership. 
  • Native American traditional healing has been recognized as an additional avenue to pursue to enhance clinical outcomes.  Several VA medical centers have sweat lodges, and some VA facilities utilize the fee basis program to secure the services of Native American healers.
  • To promote accuracy and consistency in the claims review process, VBA has taken a number of actions.  For example, in the past four years, VBA has published guidance and conducted training for employees on the full range of issues related to PTSD claims adjudication - from development of the claim to proper application of the rating schedule. 
  •  VBA and VHA have worked collaboratively to modifying the examination request worksheets and the examination templates related to PTSD.  This ensures that the information gathered during the exam is uniform and sufficient to make the determinations concerning entitlement and degree of impairment.
  • VBA’s Native American Veteran Direct Loan Program (NADL) enables a Native American veteran or a veteran who is married to a Native American veteran to use their VA home loan guaranty benefit on Federal trust land.  The program began as a pilot in 1992 and was made permanent by Public Law 109-233, The Veterans Housing Opportunity and Benefits Act of 2006.  Nearly 550 loans have been made to eligible veterans in 14 states and 3 U.S. territories.  71 tribal governments and 3 territorial governments have participated in the program.
  • With enactment of Public Law 109- 461, The Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Technology Information Act of 2006, on December 22, 2006, the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) may now award grants to Tribal Organizations for the establishment, expansion and improvement of veteran cemeteries on trust lands. 
  • NCA strives to accommodate the special needs of Native American veterans.  This includes active participation in meetings with tribal nations, the encouragement of participation in new VA national cemetery dedications, and accommodating the religious customs during committal services at VA national cemeteries. 

What outreach efforts are being conducted by VA to minorities?

The Center for Minority Veterans has staff who serve as veteran liaisons for each of the five minority groups:  African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Hispanics and American Indians and serve as consultants to the Minority Veterans Program Coordinators.  They establish partnerships with Veterans Service Organizations as well as internal and external stakeholders to increase awareness of minority veteran issues and develop collaborative strategies to address unmet needs.  The Center has active partnerships with VA’s Center for Veterans Enterprise, National Veterans Employment Program, Women Veterans Health Program, and Health and Human Services’ Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services who are active participants in our community outreach efforts and presenters in our biennial training conferences.

Other active partnerships with minority organizations include, but are not limited to:

African Americans – Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP and The National Urban League

Hispanics/Latinos – American GI Forum and League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)

Native American – National Congress of American Indians, United South and Eastern Tribes, Navajo Nation Washington Office, and the White House Indian Affairs Working Group

Asian/Pacific Islanders – Japanese American Veterans Association and Federal Asian Pacific Americans Council

VA is most appreciative of the outstanding accomplishments of the Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans and the Minority Veterans Program Coordinators because their outreach activities and reports are critical in helping VA assess and address the needs of minority veterans.

This concludes my prepared statement.  I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.