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Thursday, August 5, 2010

How the new law helps American Indians

Tara Bostock

Staff Writer

In a previous blog post, I talked about the importance of supporting health reform, not just because of the serious gains for all Americans, but also because it would help a population that is often ignored by legislators—American Indians and Alaska Natives. Despite being guaranteed health care by the U.S. government, 30 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are uninsured. This is especially problematic given this population’s poor health outcomes and high rate of chronic conditions, in comparison with other ethnic groups. For example, American Indians and Alaska Natives are three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have diabetes and two times more likely to die from it. 

But thankfully, the new health reform law renews the U.S. government’s commitment to the health care of American Indians and Alaska Natives by reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (which expired in 2002), and providing this population with additional assistance through other provisions in the law.

Families USA just released a fact sheet that summarizes how the health reform law will help American Indians and Alaska Natives get the care they need. For example, 25.9 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have a condition that could lead an insurance company to deny them coverage. Under health reform, no individual will be denied coverage, charged a higher premium, or sold a policy that doesn’t cover certain treatments, due to a pre-existing condition. In addition, the expansion of Medicaid will provide many more American Indians and Alaska Natives with health coverage. And, 287,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives will be eligible for premium subsidies to help them buy coverage through a state health exchange.

This is just the beginning. As discussed in-depth in Families USA’s issue brief, Health Reform: Help for American Indians and Alaska Natives, the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) is perhaps the most important part of the new health reform law for Indian Country.

The Indian Health Service (IHS) provides care to more than half of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Unfortunately, it has been chronically underfunded for years. The reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act provides the IHS with much-needed funding. This funding will help tribes and tribal organizations that operate through IHS reach out to and enroll Medicaid-, Medicare-, and CHIP-eligible American Indians and Alaska Natives. And it will help Indian health centers train and employ more doctors and nurses.

Also, IHS and tribal organizations will be given the authority (which they previously did not have) to create elder care programs and provide hospice services, assisted living, long-term care, home- and community-based services, and preventive services like cancer screenings. And, for the thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives suffering from diabetes, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorizes diabetes prevention programs and permits IHS to fund dialysis programs.

Health reform represents a major win for Indian Country by ensuring that more people have coverage and access to care. But I will end with the same plea from the last blog I wrote about this issue, it’s important for all of us to learn more about the barriers facing this population and share what we learn with others. Health disparities, like those suffered among American Indians and Alaska Natives, don’t disappear overnight—we need to stay informed and keep fighting.

 

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