You probably would not be surprised to learn that Haiti’s life expectancy rate is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. But you might be – and should be – shocked to find out that the populations with the second and third lowest rates are located right here in the United States, the richest country on the planet. They are the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian reservations in South Dakota.
The health issues facing American Indians in the United States make them the most at-risk minority in the country, and yet the IHS receives only 55 percent of the funds that it needs. The IHS only has roughly 15,000 employees and 31 hospitals, and barely 200 dentists, to serve the 1.9 million American Indians within its jurisdiction (there are 3.2 million American Indians in all). The Bush administration has been pushing to eliminate urban Indian health centers altogether, which would leave Native people who do not reside on a reservation without access to the health care they are entitled to.
The Indian Health Care Improvement Act, currently pending in Congress, would increase funding in the IHS by $1 billion per year through 2017, which it desperately needs if the United States is to honor the treaties that require it to provide health services to 1.9 million Natives. Its co-sponsor is Sen. Barack Obama.
It is not clear whether increasing funding for the IHS alone would be a sufficient response to the health problems in the Native community, nor is it clear how best to address these health issues without impeding on the sovereignty of the reservations.
But Obama’s demonstrated recognition of the problems and commitment to addressing them make his election critical for American Indian health.
– Peter Bresko
Graduate student, Department of Public Administration and Political Science
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, N.D.