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Marchers Protest Potential Closure of Some Health Clinics

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – To chanting and the pounding of drums, hundreds of people marched April 21 against $33 million in proposed federal cutbacks that could shut down some urban health clinics for American Indians.

“We’re upset that our center is being threatened, and we’re here to send a message that you don’t mess with a federal obligation,” said Dena Ned, executive director of the Indian Walk-In Center in Salt Lake City. “Just because we live off the reservation doesn’t mean we’re not in need of health care.”

About 400 people marched peacefully almost two miles from the clinic to the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building for a rally, police Sgt. Lamar Ewell said.

President Bush’s 2007 budget proposal says urban Indians could use regular community health centers. His budget calls for adding more and larger health centers for poor people under a $182 million funding increase. The budget also would increase funding for clinics on Indian reservations by about 4 percent over the 2006 fiscal year, said Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget.

Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson said those programs would do little to serve American Indians in urban areas, where the clinics double as social service networks and cultural centers. He said 83 percent of the clients at the city’s walk-in center have no health insurance coverage.

The clinic serves about 4,000 people a year.

Anderson, a Democrat, likened the proposed cut to the government’s “shameful” history of violating tribal treaties. “What is happening now is just part of that pattern of betrayal of Native Americans,” he said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said he also opposed the cut.

“This health care delivery system has taken decades to create, and if it were to disappear it would increase the health care disparities and barriers to care for American Indians from that of the general population,” Hatch said in a statement.

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah and a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, said he would work to restore the funding.

Half of the country’s 34 urban Indian clinics may have to close if Bush’s proposal stands, Ned said. The remaining clinics would have to cut services, charge clients or raise money through private donations to stay open, she said.

“If these things are cut off, then we’ll have to go back to the reservation with our tails between our legs,” Eleanor Iron Lightning told the crowd. A member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe from Eagle Butte, S.D., she said she’s used the clinic since she moved to Utah in June 2002.

Community health centers aren’t designed to meet the needs of urban Indians, according to the National Association for Community Centers. The centers are for people without health insurance.

In Utah, Community Health Centers Inc. has a $200,000 contract to provide medical care for the Indian Walk-In Center.

But that’s just a fraction of the clinic’s $1.5 million annual operating budget, Ned said. If the center were to lose its $1.1 million in federal contracts, it would also lose grant funding, effectively cutting about 90 percent of its budget.

The center provides diabetes education, immunizations, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, holistic care, HIV testing and youth programs. It also operates a food panty for the United Way, which handed out some 5,200 boxes of food to Indians and non-Indians last year.

Nationally, some 60 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas, according to the Census Bureau.