Officials detailed the effort in a proposed rule released in the Federal Register on Tuesday. They have not yet released a timeline for exactly when the copayments will be ended, but the final rule is expected to be approved in coming months.
The department has already pledged to reimburse all eligible veterans for any copayments made between Jan. 5, 2022, and the date of that final approval.
“American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans have played a vital role in the defense of the United States as members of the Armed Forces for more than 200 years,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement accompanying the announcement.
“This rule makes health care more accessible and allows us to better deliver to these veterans the care and health benefits that they have earned through their courageous service.”
VA estimates about 150,000 American Indian and Alaska Native veterans are living in the country today, and Defense Department officials have estimated that roughly 24,000 active duty service members belong to the same groups.
Veterans Affairs officials said they do not have a reliable estimate on how many of those veterans are currently using department health care services.
The move to eliminate the copayments for the group was mandated by Congress in 2021, as part of a package of initiatives to improve benefits for Native American veterans.
Individuals who already receive medical care through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service do not have to pay any fees related to health care appointments. Lawmakers said extending that to VA services as well provides parity and fairness in federal benefits.
The move also pairs with current VA efforts to encourage veterans to enroll in department health care services, allowing department specialists to track common problems among former military members and offer faster response to potential medical issues.
Copays for VA services can cost more than $50 for specialty visits, but many veterans with service-connected disabilities already have those fees waived.
Under the new plan, Native veterans would have their first three copayments related to community-based urgent care covered, but additional emergency visits would trigger a fee. Follow-up care performed by VA physicians would be exempt from copayments.
Officials said they are finalizing requirements to determine which veterans will be eligible for the benefit and how veterans will be able to file for repayment of those past fees.
More information on benefits for Native American veterans is available through the VA’s website.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.