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Deputy health secretary visits Navajo Nation

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WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - Claude Allen, U.S. Health and Human Services deputy secretary, wrapped up a two-day swing through the Navajo Nation by telling tribal leaders that he would take their concerns and what he learned to U.S. Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, President George Bush, and Congress.

He also told news reporters that he was impressed, "By the strength and resilience of the Navajo people."

As part of a three-day envoy into Indian country, Nov. 17 - 19, which included visits to two other Four Corners tribes - the Utes in Colorado and the Jicarilla Apache in New Mexico - and an appearance at the National Congress of American Indians annual meeting in Albuquerque, Allen's agenda was to visit with tribal leaders, tour health centers and social service programs.

His delegation included senior advisors in health care, tribal and health care policy, the deputy director of the Indian Health Service, and two regional directors.

Allen's visit, in the planning for almost a year, came one month after the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings on a report they issued this summer entitled: "A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country." The report highlighted great disparities in health care in Indian country, said Anslem Roanhorse Jr., executive director of the Navajo Division of Health. "Right now, the Navajo Area Indian Health Service receives about $1,187 per patient for health care services," said Roanhorse. "While those off the reservation received $3,582 per patient. We need to raise this issue of inequity to the highest levels," he continued.

Allen said at a round-table discussion held the first day that "the biggest challenge tribes face is Western ways colliding with traditional ways.

"In the past two years I've visited many tribes," Allen said. "This visit was to learn more about the tribes and understand the issues they face."Navajos have been looking forward to such a visit for a long time, "I don't recall a high level official visiting the Navajo for a long, long time. And I've been here for a long time, myself," said Navajo Area Indian Health Service director John Hubbard.

He participated in an hour-long discussion with division directors from health, community development, public safety, and education. Each director told Allen the problems and issues they face, and disparities in health care.

Samson Cowboy, public safety executive director said, "We don't expect you to fix our issues, but as partners make incredible strides." Prior to the discussion, Allen and his staff were provided with a 54-page Navajo Nation briefing document that outlined all the issues and facts, said Roz Chapela, planning director for NDOH.

The roundtable was followed by a site visit to the tribe's public safety building and dinner with tribal officials. On Nov. 18 their day began at 6 a.m. with a one-mile diabetes awareness walk, then on to site visits at a local senior citizen's center where he met Mary Dee Nez, 80. Nez was so overcome with emotion that she told the deputy secretary through translators that she was so happy he came, and wept. "I [often] come down here to have company," she said in Navajo. "Because there is no one to visit me," she continued.

Next, they moved onto the Fort Defiance Boys and Girls club where he was met by program directors and students. They then walked over to a nearby head start facility, where children danced and sang Navajo songs for the deputy secretary.

At 11 a.m., the entourage headed towards the campsite of 80-year old Malito Jasus, a retired railroad worker, and his sister Betty. The deputy secretary entered Jasus's log hogan and they two talked for about 15 minutes in Navajo. The deputy secretary asked about Jasus's health, how he gets food, and who tends to his health.

"Sometimes when you're working with people you don't know who is on the other side," said Joe Nunez, Denver IHS regional director, who accompanied the director. "This gives us a chance to know who we are working with."