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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

American Indians and health reform

Tara Bostock

Staff Writer

Did you know that over 4 million people in this country were born with a right to health care? Through treaties, American Indians and Alaska Natives were guaranteed the right to health care and protection from the United States government in exchange for land.

Shockingly, though they are born with this right, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation paper, American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have the worst health outcomes for preventable conditions compared to other racial and ethnic groups; a higher percentage of AI/AN people live with more than two chronic conditions than other groups; and AI/AN adults have the highest rates of some health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity. In addition, on average, they are dying 10 years earlier than the general population, according to Donald Warne, the Executive Director of the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen's Health Board.

At the American Indian Health Policy: Where We're Going workshop at our Health Action conference, Donald Warne, along with Jennifer Cooper of the National Indian Health Board and Cara Thunder of the American Indian Community House emphasized that the unique issues facing the American Indian and Alaska Natives are often ignored and have not been a focus in the health care reform debate.

But Indian issues should be a focus of the health care reform. One of the most pressing issues is that the Indian Health Service, the agency responsible for providing care for the AI/AN population, is significantly underfunded and cannot provide quality care. As Donald Warne pointed out in his presentation, IHS gets only $2,130 per person per year, compared to Medicare, which receives over $7,000. 

There are things you can do to help in their fight for health care equity. For one, support the current health care reform efforts. The Senate bill renews the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), which authorizes the appropriation of funds towards American Indian and Alaska Native health. It also focuses on eliminating health disparities, attracting Indian health care professionals to programs, and providing more efficient delivery of health care services. IHCIA is vital to the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Another important thing you can do to help is to educate yourself about the unique problems facing American Indians and Alaska Natives, and share what you learn with others. Spreading awareness of these issues is vital to American Indian and Alaska Native health becoming more of a priority for our legislators.