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A boost for Indian health strategies

Kudos this week to the University of New Mexico, creator of the first national, interdisciplinary center for health policy dedicated to the development of American Indian and Hispanic students. With an initial commitment of $18.5 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the center will welcome its first class in the fall of 2007 and focus largely on recruiting and retaining minorities in the social sciences.

The nurture and support of a new generation of policy leaders with diverse perspectives is at the heart of the center's mission, according to Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D, M.B.A, president and CEO of RWJF. The country needs a diverse group of leaders who represent the interests, cultures and needs of this incredibly diverse nation, she said. As the United States gears up for another presidential contest, national health care will likely be atop the list of hot issues (again). It is encouraging to know that the voices and collective experience of Indian country will one day strongly influence the debate.

Recognizing the need for more diversity in national health policy debate and development is critical. Charlene Porsild, program manager for the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy, believes health policy should reflect the culture and experiences of the people it represents. Indeed. Minorities comprise 30 percent of the U.S. population but less than 2 percent of scholars in the health field, resulting in a tremendous disparity in those who influence the development of health policy and those affected by it.

This development comes not a moment too soon. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act faces a new Congress, but the issues remain the same. Indian country, which disproportionately faces barriers to good health and wellness, must continue to educate law- and policy-makers about the fundamental principles of sovereignty and the federal government's responsibility in providing health care to Indian people based on government-to-government relationships. The creation of a new generation of professional Indian leaders that is well-versed in these issues is a tremendous shot in the arm, so to speak, for our national strategy, improved services and access to health care, and the wellness of our communities.