The Navajo Nation Veterans Administration was formally recognized by the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for being the first tribal nation program to receive accreditation to help veterans submit federal benefits claims directly to the VA.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough recognized the tribal government program’s status during a visit to Gallup on June 28.
“We’ve been negotiating this with President Nez and his team. They are the first tribe to take up this new authority,” McDonough said. “I’m thrilled that we can announce that today and as importantly, put it into action.”
He added that this is part of the VA’s work to make sure tribal nations have a seat at the table, this includes having veteran service officers on tribal lands who can submit veterans’ benefits claims to the VA.
McDonough’s visit came a day after it was announced that a group of bipartisan senators ended the review process on recommendations by the VA to close outpatient clinics in several states, including those in Gallup, Española, Raton and Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez noted that the accreditation achieved by the tribal government’s VA will greatly help Navajo veterans, many who face difficulties in traveling to VA centers outside the tribal land.
“Today marks a milestone with our partnership with the VA also our Navajo Nation VA,” Nez said.
Last month, Nez’s office announced that the Navajo Nation VA met the criteria and standards to be accredited through the federal VA’s Tribal Representation Expansion Project.
There are now five Navajo Nation VA staff members accredited under the project and can process federal benefits claims for veterans, according to a release from Nez’s office.
Navajo Nation VA Director James Zwierlein said the employees work in the tribe’s VA offices in Shiprock, Crownpoint, Tsé Bonito, Chinle and Tuba City.
A sixth person is being trained to work in the Fort Defiance office, he added.
The news release stated the staff members have taken in and submitted 83 claims into the federal VA system since May 2.
In remarks at the June 28 event, Zwierlein said these claims were filed on behalf of Navajo veterans but there are more veterans, including non-Navajo and non-Native American, in line for claims assistance.
McDonough also participated in a town hall with Nez, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-N.M., at the University of New Mexico campus in Gallup.
According to Nez’s office, the group heard from veterans, members of the Navajo Nation Veterans Advisory Council and state and tribal leaders about health care, benefits claims and the need for expansive care for traditional healing and mental health services.