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Native health care legislation occupies forum at the DNC

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DENVER – A key bill assuring health care for Natives is stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives where adjournment is only a few weeks away, but legislators and tribal leaders hope for a last-minute strategy to ensure its passage.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act has languished 17 years without reauthorization and, “There are no circumstances under which Indian people should have second-class health care,” said Sen. Byron Dorgan , D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Indian communities should “demand that it be passed this Congress,” he said of the health bill.

His remarks were addressed to a panel Aug. 27 of tribal leaders and delegates at the Democratic National Convention moderated by Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, whose executive director, Jackie Johnson, was also a panelist.

Two hurdles to its passage are an anti-abortion amendment and an objection to the Cherokee Nation’s decision to deny citizenship status to freedmen. The latter also affects funding to the Cherokees under the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act.

Dorgan said he hopes the health bill will clear the House in the next few weeks, but if that fails, he will work to attach it to an omnibus bill or appropriations bill in order to ensure passage because “we don’t have to wait anymore.”

The housing bill, funding for tribal colleges and Indian education, and law enforcement improvement are also on his agenda, and consultation with tribes and others is important to “find out what works.”

Citing an Amnesty International report on crime in Indian country, he said one in three Native women will be raped or sexually abused in her lifetime; yet on a reservation the size of Connecticut, there are only nine officers and they may not reach a violent crime scene for 90 minutes because of the vast distances they have to cover.

Off-reservation law enforcement and U.S. attorneys decline to enforce cases referred to them at rates ranging from 50 to 76 percent for murder and rape or other sexual abuse, and “we have to ask U.S. attorneys to stop declining cases,” he noted. Jurisdictional authority in Indian country can vary according to whether the crime is a felony, whether it takes place on Indian lands, is committed by or against a tribal member, and other factors.

Dorgan said the basic question is, “What is our value system?” and the answer is revealed in part by what the nation spends its money on. Terming the question a “matter of priorities,” he said “keeping this country’s promise” should take precedence.

The NCAI in a prepared release distributed to attendees said the Native health bill delay continues “despite the fact that Natives suffer higher health disparity rates than all other U.S. populations, and that health services are only available to Natives if ‘life or limb’ is at stake.”

Health care spending for Natives is less than half the amount the U.S. spends for federal prisoners, although infant mortality is 150 percent higher for Natives than whites, suicides 2.5 times the national average, and life expectancy 5 years less than for all others, it states.

Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who established the Native American Caucus, told attendees he will urge his fellow members of Congress to get past the anti-abortion and freedmen issues surrounding the health care bill and will work to see that it is “enacted into law one way or another.”

Kildee also described issues concerning tax-exempt bonds and pension reform in Indian country and tribally controlled community colleges, urging the motto, “Sovereignty today, sovereignty tomorrow, and sovereignty forever.”

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., a sponsor of the Indian health care bill, said such authorization is “always a problem when the president isn’t supportive.”

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., said “We cannot afford $10 to $15 billion a month on this war,” and urged a change in priorities.

Other speakers included Mark Macarro, tribal chairman, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, DNC platform committee member, who termed the platform a “very powerful document” that reaffirms tribal sovereignty and is the “strongest ever” platform for Indian country.

Keith Harper, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, an attorney specializing in Indian affairs, said, “We’ve suffered through a long, cold winter of George W. Bush” and “we need a fundamental change.”

Indian country “suffers from invisibility,” he said, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is committed to a “new politics that includes voices from disenfranchised communities.”

Harper called for a senior policy adviser for Indian affairs for day-to-day contact with the president, for a tribal “G8” summit, and for influence on judicial selection to develop a more tribe-friendly Supreme Court, or “tribal sovereignty as we know it will be fundamentally undermined.”

Wizi Garriott, Obama’s chief organizer in Indian country, said North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, and Alaska are among states where the Indian vote is very important, and Native vote coordinators and field organizers will be working to get voter turnout.

Tribal sponsors of the event at Denver Art Museum conducted by NVisionIt LLC were the Eastern Band of Cherokee, Gila River Indian Community, Mississippi Band of Choctaw, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, and Seneca Nation.