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Passage of Indian Health Care Improvement Act is vital

As the 108th Congress came to a close, many items on the national agenda
went undone. In spite of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress,
and a Republican president, the federal government failed to achieve
consensus and enact major legislation on a number of issues. Republicans
failed to pass legislation providing billions of dollars to repair
America's roads and highways, including the deteriorating roadways in
Indian country. They also failed to enact legislation this year to overhaul
the nation's energy plan and provide relief to many reservations who
currently lack an affordable and reliable energy source.

Without a doubt, the incompetence of the Republican party to fulfill their
legislative duties has consequences for all Americans, including Native
peoples. In particular, the failure of Congress to reauthorize the Indian
Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) has had the greatest consequence for
American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

For those of you around Indian country who fought persistently for its
passage, this is undeniably a demoralizing blow. Since 1999, tribal health
advocates have been working hard to achieve consensus between the health
needs of Indian country and the amount Washington is willing to pay to meet
those needs. While attempts to reauthorize the legislation came remarkably
close in the waning days of this congressional session, these efforts were
ultimately defeated.

One of the primary reasons for the inaction was that the IHCIA
reauthorization languished for far too long in both the House and Senate
chambers. Legislation reauthorizing the IHCIA was introduced in both
chambers in early 2003, the beginning of the 108th Congress. In the House,
bill H.R. 2440 was introduced by Rep. Don Young, and in the Senate, S. 556
was introduced by retiring Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell. With the
exception of a few congressional hearings, very little action was taken on
either bill after they were introduced.

That all changed with the opening of the National Museum of the American
Indian. Indeed, it was the opening of the museum, and the presence of
millions of Native peoples from across the Americas that provided an
impetus to move the reauthorizing legislation forward. During this time a
flurry of activity took place on Capitol Hill. Advocacy groups such as the
National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Health Board and
the smaller area health boards led the effort to make Indian country's
voice heard. As a result, on Sept. 22 both H.R. 2440 and S. 556 were
quickly and unanimously approved in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
and the House Resources Committee.

It is worth mentioning that Indian country wanted to reauthorize the IHCIA
so badly that it was also willing to remove portions of the original
legislation deemed objectionable by the Bush administration and/or
Congressional Republicans. Indeed, entire sections dealing with Medicare
were deleted from the original legislation in an attempt to pacify
administration concerns and move the legislation forward.

I believe that it is a gross injustice to ask American Indians, who suffer
from a wholly inadequate health care system, to make any further
concessions. The purpose of the Indian Health Care Act is to raise the
standard of health care in Indian country to the level of care afforded to
every other American. This goal cannot be achieved through cheap
incremental reforms. A substantial investment is needed in order to improve
the health status of America's first peoples. Unfortunately, the Republican
Party lacks the wherewithal to achieve this goal.

Ultimately, legislation reauthorizing the IHCIA died in the 108th Congress
because too little time was left to bridge the gaps that existed between
tribal leaders, congressional Republicans and the White House.

In spite of this outcome, I am optimistic that legislation can be passed
when lawmakers reconvene in January for the 109th Congress. However, it's
going to take a lot of hard work.

There is a quote from Lone Man of the Teton Sioux Indians that I am often
reminded of, "I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough
for a man to depend simply upon himself." Indeed, no one man is going to be
able to reauthorize the IHCIA; it is going to take the help of key
lawmakers in Congress, administration officials, tribal leaders, health
advocates and all of Indian country in order to accomplish this goal. I am
committed to this goal and look forward to joining you in the fight to
reauthorize the IHCIA in the 109th Congress.

Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. is currently serving his eighth full term in
the U.S. House of Representatives. Rep. Pallone represents New Jersey's
Sixth Congressional District, serving as a senior member of the House
Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Resources Committee.