Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approves two bills at meeting

Veterans present the colors at the Ho-Chunk Nation's general council meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 19, 2015. Photo from Facebook

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs advanced a veterans health bill and an economic development bill at a business meeting on Wednesday.

Both measures are considered non-controversial. But Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), raised concerns about S.2417, the Tribal Veterans Health Care Enhancement Act.

The bill authorizes the Indian Health Service to cover the cost of co-pays for Indian veterans who receive care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Despite that worthy goal, Tester said the measure fails to address an underlying issue.

"Frankly we're asking one badly underfunded agency, which is IHS, to pay another underfunded agency, the VA, when the real solution is to give our health care systems at the VA and the IHS the resources they need," Tester said.

Tester also said the IHS has not provided its views on the measure. No one from the Obama administration testified at a May 11 hearing on the bill although one Indian veteran endorsed it.

"When you add together the cost of gas, food, and lodging, along with the cost of the deductible or co-pay that VA charges and that the IHS currently does not pay, it is not unusual for an Indian veteran to spend $200 or more just to go the VA for the care that they were promised," Roger Trudell, the chairman of the Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska and the chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Health Board, told the committee.

Despite the concerns, Tester did not oppose consideration of the measure and it was approved by a voice vote.

Santa Clara Pueblo owns and operates the Santa Claran Hotel in Espanola, New Mexico. Photo from Santa Clara Pueblo

The second bill that was approved on Wednesday was S.2916, which authorizes Santa Clara Pueblo in New Mexico to enter into leases for its lands that last up to 99 years. The provision would also apply to Ohkay Owingeh.

Both tribes were included in an earlier law known as the Long-Term Leasing Act. But that law only applies to lands that are held "in trust" and the tribes also own significant parcels in fee simple.

"My bill simply clarifies that the listed Pueblos in the act are able lease all of the lands within the boundaries of the pueblos," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), who introduced the bill on May 20.

The committee held a hearing on the bill on May 18. Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Michael Chavarria said it would help his tribe with economic development projects for its "commercially valuable" lands.

Both bills can now be considered by the full Senate.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to consider S. 2417 & S. 2916 (June 8, 2016)

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