The Cherokee Nation and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are partnering to open a clinic in Vinita. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)
It’s exciting that the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have entered into a historic partnership to increase access to veteran care in rural Oklahoma.
The two entities recently announced they formed a unique partnership that officials said could serve as a “roadmap” for how rural America can work with tribal nations to increase care.
Officials have apparently been working quietly behind the scenes for almost two years to make such a partnership a reality.
Much to the chagrin of many Oklahoma veterans living in the northeast region, the VA in 2021 announced plans to shutter its outpatient location in Vinita so that the federal agency could focus on offering services elsewhere. When the clinic closed Aug. 11, patients were told to schedule appointments at a new outpatient VA location about 30 minutes away in Claremore.
The dubious closure decision came as the overall veteran population in the region continues to grow.
While 30 minutes might not seem like a long drive, for disabled and aging veterans who don’t have reliable access to transportation and who live in a region that doesn’t have public transit, the closure decision really hampers access to care.
Nobody should have to drive 30 minutes to access a routine health care appointment, particularly veterans who sacrificed for our country.
In budget year 2020, the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics found that over 291,000 veterans lived in Oklahoma, including nearly 233,000 that served in times of war.
Over 30,000 Oklahoma veterans are women. The state ranked 26 in its share of total veteran population.
Over 7% of the state’s veteran population lives in far northeastern Oklahoma, according to the most recent analysis.
Not surprisingly, the state’s overall veteran population tends to lean 65 and older, though former military personnel ages 35 to 54 comprise a growing demographic, according to analysis. The vast majority fought in either the Vietnam era or one of the country’s two Gulf Wars.
Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said his father, a Navy veteran and former Vinita mayor, immediately began looking for a solution to the Vinita closure crisis.
Hoskin said his father knew how important it is for veterans to have local health care access.
Through the partnership Hoskin’s father helped craft, the Eastern Oklahoma VA Health Care System plans to lease space from the Cherokee Nation to open a 1,300-square-clinic inside the tribe’s existing Vinita Health Center.
The new VA clinic will serve both Native and non-Indigenous veterans. It’s located about an hour northeast of Tulsa.
Hoskin said the aim is to make accessing care easier for many veterans.
Increased access to health care is needed, particularly in a state that continually ranks among the worst in overall availability.
The federal government should be playing a key role in improving the state’s health care access issues, particularly among the military personnel it formerly employed.
Oklahoma welcomes veterans with open arms, but its health care system can’t solely bear the brunt of their care.
In budget year 2017, Oklahoma’s VA health care centers treated 96,523 veterans — about 1.5% of the national total. Oklahoma, meanwhile, had over 140,000 enrolled veterans eligible to receive care.
In 2022, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs reported that Oklahoma ranked second in the country — only behind Nebraska — in the number of veterans per-capita receiving disability and pension benefits.
Nearly 36% of Oklahoma’s veterans have some sort of injury or medical condition related to their service, the state agency said.
Yet, at the time of the federal analysis, the VA operated just 16 outpatient care sites in Oklahoma, a mere fraction of the 1,029 nationally.
The state has 77 counties. That means many veterans living in rural Oklahoma have no access to convenient VA outpatient care.
One can only imagine how many more veterans might seek needed care if there were more outpatient clinics locally available.
The Vinita clinic is much needed and perhaps a good wake-up call for the federal VA to re-examine how it delivers care.
Hopefully, tribal and federal officials will continue to explore mutually beneficial solutions that increase health outcomes for years to come.
Such partnerships can only help Oklahoma.
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