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Pass Indian Health Care Improvement Act now

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It's a new year, which means another round of debate for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. We appeal to Congress and the White House to take action now to reauthorize the IHCIA. The passage of this important legislation will mean improved, modern health care for American Indian and Alaska Native people in rural and urban tribal communities. IHS facilities are operating in crisis mode, and have been for years. While Congress debates the merits of this legislation, health disparities for Native people are increasing, chronic conditions are going untreated and waiting lists for doctors and dentists continue to grow. All politics aside, this has become a moral issue that must be addressed now.

This legislation represents a collaborative effort by tribal and U.S. leaders determined to win its passage and finally modernize Indian health services. Urging the Senate to move the legislation forward, National Indian Health Board Chairman H. Sally Smith and NCAI National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia said recently the bill ''has been negotiated, amended, revised, wordsmithed and compromised.'' They're right. The office of the president has protested several provisions in the bill and Congress has effectively delayed debate on it. The administration on Jan. 22 threatened a veto, worrying many in Indian country that 2008 still might not be the year for Indian health care.

The IHCIA was last reauthorized 16 years ago. Since 1992, the Native population in the United States has more than doubled. Working with inadequate and temporary federal funding, IHS facilities are regularly forced to ration care, their medical staff tending only to the most urgent of needs. This creates a backlog of patients forced to wait several months before receiving medical or dental care. There are few if any resources for prevention programs, mental health counseling or substance abuse treatment.

The prevailing cultural duty of Indian peoples, to always consider the seventh generation, includes weaving good health into the web of life. It is nearly impossible to do so without adequate health care. It is no wonder that American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer the highest rates of diabetes, chemical addiction and suicide. For too many, the journey to the bottom is not that far. Many Indian babies born into this terrible health environment never have a real chance to recover mentally, physically or spiritually. Poor health care is a serious detriment to families and communities, one that we could be well equipped to fight with the tools provided in the legislation.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., argued that the bill wasn't as important as the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, an item higher on the Republican agenda. ''American lives will not depend on the passage of Indian health care by the end of this month,'' he said during the Senate debate. There are millions of Indian people and their supporters who might beg to differ.

Human rights and dignity are at issue here; it is unconscionable to delay this critical legislation any longer.