VA and IHS:

Further Action Needed to Collaborate on Providing Health Care to Native American Veterans

GAO-13-354: Published: Apr 26, 2013. Publicly Released: Apr 26, 2013.

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Contact:

Randall B. Williamson
(202) 512-7114
williamsonr@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) have developed mechanisms to implement and monitor their memorandum of understanding (MOU); however, the performance metrics developed to assess its implementation do not adequately measure progress made toward its goals. VA and IHS have defined common goals for implementing the MOU and developed strategies to achieve them. They have also created two mechanisms to implement the MOU--12 workgroups with members from both agencies to address the goals of the MOU, and a Joint Implementation Task Force, comprised of VA and IHS officials, to oversee the MOU's implementation. These steps are consistent with practices that GAO has found enhance and sustain agency collaboration. The agencies have also developed three metrics aimed at measuring progress toward the MOU's goals. However, two of the three metrics are inadequate because their connection to any specific MOU goal is not clear and, while they include quantitative measures that tally the number of programs and activities increased or enhanced as a result of the MOU, they lack qualitative measures that would allow the agencies to assess the degree to which the desired results are achieved. The weaknesses in these metrics could limit the ability of VA and IHS managers to gauge progress and make decisions about whether to expand or modify their programs and activities.

VA and IHS face unique challenges associated with consulting with a large number of diverse, sovereign tribes to implement the MOU, and lack fully effective processes to overcome these complexities. VA and IHS officials told us the large number (566 federally recognized tribes) and differing customs and policy-making structures present logistical challenges in widespread implementation of the MOU within tribal communities. They also told us that tribal sovereignty--tribes' inherent right to govern and protect the health, safety, and welfare of tribal members--adds further complexity because tribes may choose whether or not to participate in MOU-related activities. Consistent with internal controls, VA and IHS have processes in place to consult with tribes on MOU-related activities through written correspondence and in-person meetings. However, according to tribal stakeholders GAO spoke with, these processes are often ineffective and have not always met the needs of the tribes, and the agencies have acknowledged that effective consultation has been challenging. For example, one tribal community expressed concern that agency correspondence is not always timely because it is sent to tribal leaders who are sometimes not the tribal members designated to take action on health care matters. Similarly, some tribal stakeholders told GAO that the agencies have not been responsive to tribal input and that sometimes they simply inform tribes of steps they have taken without consulting them. VA and IHS have taken steps to improve consultation with tribes. For example, VA has established an Office of Tribal Government Relations, through which it is developing relationships with tribal leaders and other tribal stakeholders. Additionally, in Alaska, VA has been consulting with a tribal health organization for insight on reaching tribes. However, given the concerns raised by the tribal stakeholders GAO spoke with, further efforts may be needed to enhance tribal consultation to implement and achieve the goals of the MOU.

Why GAO Did This Study

Native Americans who have served in the military may be eligible for health care services from both VA and IHS. To enhance health care access and the quality of care provided to Native American veterans, in 2010, these two agencies renewed and revised an MOU designed to improve their coordination and resource sharing related to serving these veterans. GAO was asked to examine how the agencies have implemented the MOU.

This report examines: (1) the extent to which the agencies have established mechanisms through which the MOU can be implemented and monitored; and (2) key challenges the agencies face in implementing the MOU and the progress made in overcoming them. To conduct this work, GAO interviewed VA and IHS officials and reviewed agency documents and reports. GAO also obtained perspectives of tribal communities through attendance at two tribal conferences; interviews with tribal leaders and other tribal members, including veterans; and interviews with other stakeholders, such as health policy experts and consultants.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the agencies take steps to improve the performance metrics used to assess MOU implementation and to develop better processes to consult with tribes. VA and the Department of Health and Human Services agreed with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Randall Williamson at (202) 512-7114 or williamsonr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the health care needs of Native American veterans are addressed most efficiently and effectively, as the agencies move forward with revising the MOU's performance metrics and measuresthe Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Secretary of Health and Human Services should, ensure that the revised metrics and measures allow decision makers to gauge whether achievement of the metrics and measures supports attainment of MOU goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the health care needs of Native American veterans are addressed most efficiently and effectively, as the agencies move forward with revising the MOU's performance metrics and measuresthe Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Secretary of Health and Human Services should, ensure that the revised metrics and measures allow decision makers to gauge whether achievement of the metrics and measures supports attainment of MOU goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the health care needs of Native American veterans are addressed most efficiently and effectively, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop processes to better ensure that consultation with tribes is effective, including the following, (1) a process to identify the appropriate tribal members with whom to communicate MOU-related information, which should include methods for keeping such identification up-to-date. (2) A process to clearly outline and communicate to tribal communities the agencies' response to tribal input, including any changes in policies and programs or other effects that result from incorporating tribal input. (3) A process to establish timelines for releasing information to tribal communities to ensure they have enough time to review and provide input or, in the case of meetings, determine the appropriate tribal member to attend the event.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To ensure the health care needs of Native American veterans are addressed most efficiently and effectively, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop processes to better ensure that consultation with tribes is effective, including the following, (1) a process to identify the appropriate tribal members with whom to communicate MOU-related information, which should include methods for keeping such identification up-to-date. (2) A process to clearly outline and communicate to tribal communities the agencies' response to tribal input, including any changes in policies and programs or other effects that result from incorporating tribal input. (3) A process to establish timelines for releasing information to tribal communities to ensure they have enough time to review and provide input or, in the case of meetings, determine the appropriate tribal member to attend the event.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

 

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