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Funding cuts may hurt program that helped med students

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DULUTH, Minn. (AP) – A summer program that encourages American Indians to enter health professions was in full swing in late June, as students such as Otis Bitsuie learned how to measure blood pressure.

Bitsuie, a 21-year-old Navajo who came from the University of Utah for the summer program, said he will probably pursue a medical profession. He said it’s important for Indians to have Indian doctors.

“A lot of Natives don’t have the trust there [with doctors from outside their culture],” he said. “That can make a very big difference. It can ease apprehension if they see a Native.”

But programs like Native Americans into Medicine could be at risk after Sept. 1, when funding ends for the Center for American Indian and Minority Health, one of three centers in U.S. medical schools that promote health professions for Indians. The loss in funding will cut the center’s budget by 83 percent, from $1.325 million to $225,000.

The programs helped the University of Minnesota

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graduate more than 100 Native doctors since 1990, more than all but one other American university.

Dr. Ed Haller, a now retired faculty member in Duluth who started recruiting Natives into the university’s medical school, called the federal budget cut “unconscionable.” Nationwide, funding was cut for all centers of minority health, except those at historically black colleges.

“The people who have been here have been role models and an inspiration to students,” Haller said. “I remember one student who said he had been told that he should be a truck driver. That sort of thing just brings tears to your eyes.”

University Medical School Dean Deborah Powell said university officials hope to redirect enough money to restore at least half of the cut funds. The school is lobbying Minnesota’s congressional delegation to try to get funding restored next year.

Powell said the program is the reason that 17 of the 200 students who start medical school on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses this fall are American Indian. Those students, from across the country, are drawn by the opportunity to work on reservations, study with Indian doctors and take classes dealing with issues such as medicine and traditional healing practices.

“To provide the best health care to patients, be they Caucasian or Somali or Hmong or American Indian, one has to understand their culture and beliefs,” Powell said. “We have to have students who come from those cultures.”