Rural Native Veterans' Perceptions of Care in the Context of Navigator Program Development

J Racial Ethn Health Disparities. 2024 Mar 18. doi: 10.1007/s40615-024-01955-9. Online ahead of print.


Introduction: American Indian and Alaska Natives serve in the military at one of the highest rates of all racial and ethnic groups. For Veterans, the already significant healthcare disparities Natives experience are aggravated by barriers to accessing care, care navigation, and coordination of health care within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) between the VHA and tribal health systems. To mitigate these barriers, the VHA is developing a patient navigation program designed specifically for rural Native Veterans. We describe formative work aimed at understanding and addressing barriers to VHA care from the perspective of rural Native Veterans and those who facilitate their care.

Methods: Thirty-four individuals participated in semi-structured interviews (22 Veterans, 6 family members, and 6 Veteran advocates) drawn from 9 tribal communities across the US.

Results: Participants described many barriers to using the VHA, including perceptions of care scarcity, long travel distances to the VHA, high travel costs, and bureaucratic barriers including poor customer service, scheduling issues, and long waits for appointments. Many Veterans preferred IHS/tribal health care over the VHA due to its proximity, simplicity, ease of use, and quality.

Conclusion: Rural Native Veterans must see a clear benefit to using the VHA given the many obstacles to its use. Veteran recommendations for addressing barriers to VHA care within a navigation program include assistance enrolling in, scheduling, and navigating VHA systems; paperwork assistance; cost reimbursement; and care coordination with the IHS/tribal health care.

Keywords: American Indian/Alaska Native; Barriers; Health care; Native American; Rural; VA; Veterans.