Health on Wheels: Pediatric Mobile Clinic Is Serving Ho-Chunk Members

The Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin unveiled a brand new mobile pediatric health clinic at their Labor Day Pow-Wow. “We’re pretty excited about that,” President Greendeer told Indian Country Today Media Network days prior to the reveal. “It’s the first in Indian country.”

The road to this point began in 1987 when Dr. Irwin Redlener and Paul Simon co-founded the Children’s Health Fund (CHF). The idea at that time was to provide health care to the most medically underserved children in the country. The initial program was directed at New York City. Since that time, it has expanded to many locations including Chicago, Detroit, Phoenix, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and others. The Ho-Chunk Nation is the first in Indian country.

Dr. Redlener, a co-founder of CHF and a professor at Columbia University, explained that funding is raised through a development team that raises about $16 million a year. “Paul Simon also does an annual gala for us. Others have joined him like Willy Nelson and Joan Baez and that gala nets about $1.5 million a year,” he said. “It’s significant but by no means the entirety of the funding that’s needed.”

Other funding comes through the Idol Gives Back Foundation, a philanthropic group established by the TV program American Idol.

The tie to the Ho-Chunk Nation came through Dr. Alec Thundercloud, a Ho-Chunk tribal member. Dr. Redlener explained, “When he finished his training in pediatrics, about 10 years ago, he came to us for some special training for a year. He learned we pride health care for very disadvantaged, medically underserved children. He got familiar with our mobile pediatric clinics. When he finished his training we hired him and he was the medical director for one of our programs on Long Island.”

Dr. Thundercloud is now the executive director for the Department of Health of the Ho-Chunk Nation. “He was one of the best pediatricians who ever worked with CHF. He helped us understand that many children in the Ho-Chunk Nation are not getting the regular care they should be getting,” Dr. Redlener explained. “This program had to do with the history we’ve had with Dr. Alec Thundercloud. That’s how this program came to be.”

Dr. Thundercloud added that he had supplied CHF with health statistics in regard to diabetes rates, obesity rates and other health disparities throughout Indian country. “They were really amazed this occurs yet in the U.S. and were very interested in partnering with a tribal health care facility and really reducing some health disparities that children and families are seeing.”

CHF will provide the mobile unit—“a beautiful, state of the art, rolling pediatric clinic,” Dr. Redlener said. The Ho-Chunk Nation will staff the mobile clinic.

“Our goal is to create healthy, productive children able to get a good education and become productive members of society,” Dr. Thundercloud said. “This will be by providing comprehensive health care, acute care, bringing laboratory testing, screening testing and immunizations to children who otherwise would not be able to access care.”

He also sees it going a big step further. “We will be able to provide advocacy for families. Often children who are not receiving health care have family members experiencing other issues or problems that need to be addressed. It might be financial, employment, navigating a complicated health care system without health insurance or perhaps getting plugged into a Medicaid program. I think we’ll be able to advocate, to address some of these issues and reduce disparities and create a family unit that will be thriving.”

The Tribe does not have a reservation, but the mobile unit will travel from its base in Black River Falls to distant communities, some as much as 120 miles away, to bring a doctor’s office on wheels to the 1,455 children throughout the Ho-Chunk Nation.

President Greendeer envisions this clinic as focusing on the next generation: “our leadership, the carriers of our cultural and traditional ways.

"A focus on the solutions of our greatest challenges probably lies more with our younger folks than they do in our daily politics. This will serve as a way of addressing some of Indian country’s toughest issues. It deals with health care and dental issues with the young.”

Dr. Thundercloud commented, “This is great for Indian country. Indian country is going to be looking at how they can come up with innovative models of providing health care systems and looking at partnering with outside agencies.”

President Greendeer summarized the program saying, “If you’re working in administration, working in the health field and you’re working for the Ho-Chunk Nation, you’ve got to be loving this ride. To be a part of something in its maiden voyage, there couldn’t be anything better.”