IHS budget needs at least billion more in funding

As a member of the House Resources Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as the Native American Caucus, I am committed to serving as an advocate for American Indian and Alaska Native socio-economic and governmental initiatives.

Recently, I circulated a letter to my 434 colleagues in the House of Representatives requesting they join me in a letter to appropriators supporting a billion increase to the Indian Health Service (IHS) budget for Fiscal Year 2003. Twenty colleagues signed a letter to Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Joe Skeen, R-N.M., requesting the additional funds.

If supported by both the House and Senate, IHS's total budget for FY 2003 would be .8 billion. These budget dollars are used to fund health services, pay salaries and administration costs and build and enhance health facilities. In addition, there is a need to increase funding for clinical services, facilities maintenance improvement and contract support costs. The Senate Budget Committee already approved this billion increase, and I am working with my colleague, Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., to move this budget request forward in the House.

I do recognize that this would be an incremental increase in comparison to the Tribal Leaders Needs-Based budget, which indicates the actual IHS level of need to be billion. However, an increase of billion in funding for the IHS will have a positive impact in working towards providing health services that meet the needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

I think we would all agree that American Indian and Alaska Native nations and communities have significant and identifiable health disparities and as a result are often considered a highly vulnerable population in the U.S. A recent study reported that American Indian and Alaska Native life expectancy is still five years less than other Americans and that Indian people die at higher rates than other Americans.

Historically, Congress has never funded the IHS at a level that would provide health services comparable to that of other Americans. Nor have past presidents proposed adequate funding for the IHS. Clearly, inadequate funding has been a major factor contributing to the vulnerability of American Indian and Alaska Native people. It is time we, as Congressional Representatives, acknowledge such funding distribution shortfalls and work towards rectifying the situation, starting now.

In 1999, 20,000 cases existed in which the IHS could not reimburse non-IHS facilities for the services they provided, resulting in serious budget shortfalls for the contract facilities. In fact, American Indian and Alaska Native patients are often faced with a "life or limb" test that dictates whether they may or may not receive IHS health services.

Such Indian health care realities are unacceptable, and all of Indian country should respond by urging the president and members of Congress whenever an opportunity arises to increase funding for the IHS. When Indian country and her advocates in Congress work together, great strides can be made in working towards meeting the needs of American Indian and Alaska Native people.