Indian health and crime amendment passes Senate

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Monies for IHS included

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate has passed an amendment aimed at injecting $2 billion to strengthening health and fighting crime in Indian country.

The amendment redirects $1 billion in funding for law enforcement and improved health care as well as $1 billion for water projects on reservations across the nation. The legislation pertains to the already-passed S. 2731, a $50 billion foreign assistance bill.

Under the agreement brokered by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and others, the amendment was adopted by a voice vote July 16.

''I'm very pleased that the Senate has recognized the need and has demonstrated a willingness to address it,'' Thune said in an interview with Indian Country Today. ''This is something we've been working on for a long time, and we hope to continue to elevate some of the issues that are impacting Indian country.

''Congress recognized the responsibility we have to improve law enforcement, public safety and health care on our nation's reservations. We think this is an important first step in addressing issues that folks are facing in Indian country, and we hope that it will be easier in the future to get Congress to move forward on other solutions that also address those needs.''

Thune added that while the original foreign aid bill sought to address critical needs in Africa and other places overseas, he felt strongly that critical needs in the U.S. affecting American Indians also deserved attention.

In addition to $1 billion to develop and strengthen water projects in Indian country, the amendment authorizes another $1 billion, of which $750 million will be designated for improving Indian public safety and $250 million will be devoted to strengthening the budget of the IHS.

The $750 million for public safety breaks down as follows: $370 million for detention facility construction, rehabilitation and placement through the Department of Justice; $310 million for the BIA's Public Safety and Justice Account, which funds tribal police and tribal courts; $30 million for investigations and prosecution of crimes in Indian country by the FBI and U.S. attorneys; $30 million for the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Program for Indian and Alaska Native Programs; and $10 million for cross-deputization or other cooperative agreements among state, local and tribal governments.

The $250 million for health care is to be divided as determined by IHS Director Robert McSwain between contract health services, construction and rehabilitation of Indian health facilities, and domestic and community sanitation facilities serving Indian tribes.

Upon learning news of the amendment funds, IHS leaders were optimistic. ''We certainly appreciate the senators for remembering our health care needs as they deliberate on this legislation,'' McSwain said in a statement. ''We continue to watch with great interest.''

While Thune and other Congress members are still hopeful that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which passed the Senate in February, will be taken up by the House this year, he said the current amendment development helps to partially alleviate the problem if the act ends up not moving in the House.

''This amendment, we know, will get acted on this year [by the House], so to put a marker down that provides assistance for IHS contract health services and other needs is important,'' Thune said.

Managers of the amendment have pledged that the tribal funding will be incorporated in a final bill to be worked out between the Senate and the House and ultimately to be presented to the White House.

Thune said he has received assurances from Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that his counterparts in the House are willing to accept a similar $2 billion amendment that would aid Indian country.

Earlier this year, the House passed a companion to the Senate's foreign assistance bill, but the bill did not include any set-asides to address tribal health and crime needs.

The passage of the amendment comes at a time when Republican South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long is disputing Department of Justice reports that indicate up to 70 percent of violent crimes against Indian victims have been committed by non-Indians.

The DoJ statistics have played a role in arguments for more federal funding for crime prevention in Indian country. Long has previously opposed tribes on sovereignty issues, land-into-trust, jurisdiction, and voting rights.

A study authored by Long and others, to be released in the fall issue of the American Indian Research and Culture Journal, found that nearly 73 percent of Indian homicides were committed by other Indians.

Despite his contradictory findings to those of DoJ, Long has acknowledged that the homicide rates on some reservations rival those of metropolitan Chicago and are even higher than Los Angeles and New York City.

Thune said he is supportive of research that provides a better picture of overall crime on reservations, but that the Long research did not alter his view that Indian country needs much more funding to aid in law enforcement.

''We want current information that puts us in a position to make arguments to my colleagues here in the Senate as to what we can do to address these serious crisis situations in Indian country,'' Thune said.