Health care reauthorization a priority in Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Taking input from American Indians and Alaska Natives throughout Indian country, a national steering committee has drafted reauthorization legislation to extend federal health care due to expire in September.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a May 10 hearing on the draft legislation to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, initially authorized by Congress in 1976.

In 1999, the administration, through the Indian health Service (IHS), sponsored regional meetings between tribal health care providers, on reservations and in urban areas, to discuss various health care concerns and gather recommendations on the reauthorization.

Following the meetings, tribes, tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations formed a National Steering Committee. Given the ultimate responsibility of addressing recommendations and conflicts from the regional meetings, the committee drafted the reauthorization legislation before Congress.

"This bill developed by tribes over the last year is a good example, or perhaps model is a better word, of a good consultation process," said Julia Davis, Nez Perce Council Member and member of the steering committee. "This bill was developed by tribes and urban Indian groups and reviewed and commented on by American Indian and Alaska Natives nationwide."

The new act considers a variety of issues relating to health acre, including the definition of Indian and who is eligible for health care entitlements, incorporation of traditional healing practices and cultural sensitivity training for all health care providers.

"The Navajo Nation recognizes the need for a higher degree of cultural relevance in services provided to Indians," said Dr. Taylor McKenzie, vice president of the Navajo Nation. "The law will require tribal consultation in the design and delivery of training which includes the culture and history of the tribe."

The act would implement a number of scholarship programs to provide greater educational opportunities to Native Americans and more professional health care workers for tribal communities.

While the hearing focused on reauthorization, concerns were raised regarding the continued lack of federal funding for the construction and maintenance of tribal health facilities. Davis pleaded with the committee for help. She noted that tribal clinics, on average, are more than 30 years old, forcing some tribal members who are lucky enough to be eligible for other health care, such as Medicare, to drive long distances just to see a doctor in a decent health facility.

"The clinics are not just old, they are inadequate," said Davis. "They are too small, the equipment is often outdated, and the staff is forced to make do as best that can."

In response to Davis, Committee Chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell reiterated the committee's commitment to the improvement of Indian health care, but also called on Indian people and the tribes to put more pressure on Congress.

"Congress is a body that reacts to pressure," Campbell said. "Indian people need to get more involved."

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is expected to hold its final hearing on the bill in July and Congress is expected to consider the final bill before the current law expires in September.