Lawmakers Push Health Care Reform in Indian Country

By Leticia Miranda Oct 23, 2009

As the health care reform debate rages on in Congress about a public option, some lawmakers are trying to get legislation through that would make health care free for tribal Indians and improve health services in Indian Country. New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone said to NewsOK:

"Less is spent on providing health care to American Indians per capita than any other sub-population. In fact, we spend more to provide health care to federal inmates than we do for American Indians.”

Like most things in state politics, tracking and understanding all the initiatives is a little confusing. Right now, there are three initiatives in Congress that are doing something about health care for tribal Indians. The latest is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act which would reauthorize health care programs that haven’t been reauthorized for 10 years and apply fiscal standards to improve health services for American Indians and Alaskan natives. Then, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone is pushing an amendment to the current health care bill that would tack on changes to health services for American Indians to any health care reform that happens in Congress. This amendment would essentially protect the services that are already being offered and make some improvements to the system, but not any major ones. Finally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced a House bill that "will ensure that the exemption from the financial penalties is extended to members of federally recognized Indian tribes, and that the tribally provided health care benefits are appropriately protected,” she said in a letter to the National Congress of American Indians. Basically, health care would cost federally recognized tribes $free.99. Indian Country Today reported last week that:

Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, publicly promised tribes in September that Obama supports special consideration for American Indians – a reprieve from the mandate – in terms of health care reform.

The reforms sound pretty good, especially with Obama supporting Pelosi’s promise to make sure American Indians don’t have to pay anything for health services. But, some are skeptical and critical about how much these initiatives would really change health care in Indian Country. Derek Bailey, chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians said:

"Indian Health Services has never met all the needs of Indians; rather Indian Health Service is primarily a ‘last resort; when it should be the first place that Indian people look to for health care. When tribes achieve success financially, they immediately fund health care because of the inadequate funding of health by the feds.”

Bailey says without investing more in Indian Health Services’ budget, then tribal employers will continue to use independent insurance to cover their employees. In his own tribe, all employers have health insurance outside of IHS because it has never offered sufficient service to their patients, he says. So as the debate carries on in Congress, the health realities of American Indians — highest rates of diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide — lawmakers and tribal members will most likely agree that the bills and amendment will not do everything to fix health care deficiencies in Indian Country, but will do something to try and improve it.