Is Shoddy Cancer Care for Natives a Treaty Violation?

A recent Newsweek feature asks if a lack of funding for the Indian Health Service is actually a violation of Native American treaty obligations.

A recent Newsweek feature begins with a well-known Indian country adage, “Don’t get sick after June.” This is because by then the under-funded Indian Health Service has run out of money.

The feature goes on to talk about the high incidence of colorectal cancer among Native Americans—53 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites, and 115 percent for Alaska Natives. Newsweek notes that some of the cause is genetics and lifestyle, but lack of screening is also to blame.

Natives rely on the Indian Health Service, a government-funded service that is supposed to meet treaty obligations to provide health care to Native Americans. The IHS is not able to meet those obligations, and does not even cover preventive cancer screenings, like colonoscopies, Newsweek points out.

“Thus far, given the option, Congress would rather let Indians die than adequately fund the Indian Health Service,” Donald Warne, the first Native doctor to serve on the national board of directors of the American Cancer Society, told Newsweek. “We are not receiving ‘all proper care and protection’”—the specifics guaranteed by the tribal treaties—“so, in truth, the federal government is in violation of the treaties. And the treaties are essentially contracts. I think if there’s an unnecessary death, you should look at how the federal government is in breach of contract in allowing unnecessary death.”

Read the full feature by Newsweek, published July 19, 2016, here.