Robert Weaver has seen the difference access to healthcare has had on his fellow tribal members within the Quapaw Nation.
About six years ago, he convinced the Quapaw Tribal Council to start a tribal member health plan for the entire nation, basically universal healthcare for the tribe that includes medical, vision, dental and end-of-life insurance like hospice.
“It’s been really neat to watch,” he said. Tribal members have told him how going to the doctor has changed. Now, when they go and give the person behind the desk an insurance card, they don’t really miss a beat. Before, it was a hassle to make sure a referral was in place and everything was in order, he said.
“As great as healthcare in America can be, so many people don’t ever go to the doctor,” he said, adding that fear and money are often the issues.
About 600 people were diagnosed with diabetes in less than two months after the plan was started. Doctors believe six of the people would have died in a month had they not sought medical treatment. Also, within three months of starting the health plan, six women under the age of 25 were diagnosed with cervical cancer.
Weaver has long been interested in health care, but it was about a decade ago that he decided to focus his efforts on his fellow Native Americans. In 2007, Weaver founded RWI Benefits, an Indian health consulting services business that specializes in casino health insurance plans. His first client was his own tribe.
The Quapaw Nation was opening Downstream Casino at the time, Weaver said, and he was asked to look at the contracts. The tribal council members were very confused and didn’t know which bid to choose. Many of the bids varied dramatically, Weaver said.
“I saw this council with this huge amount of confusion. They didn’t understand insurance, but that’s not what they were elected to understand. They were elected to lead,” Weaver said.
He decided to write his own bid to show the council what they should be looking for, better benefits and a lower price than what they had been receiving. Instead, the tribal council of the Quapaw Nation decided to hire him.
“In 2006, even though it doesn’t seem that long ago, there were still a lot of insurance companies — in my opinion — that were very much taking advantage of tribes and their enterprises,” he said.
A very large health insurance company told him that they would give him $1 million for his brokerage if he would make sure that the company was their recommendation, he noted.
“I said, ‘Are you trying to bribe me?’” he said, adding that the company noted it wasn’t illegal.
“That’s when I realized right there, we as Native Americans….I came to the conclusion we’re getting taken advantage of because of our lack of knowledge,” he said.
So he decided to focus more on Indian Country, which he described as a bit “scary” because of how political tribes can be. Yet he has been able to help several tribes and tribal enterprises save money and improve their health programs, including the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma. The business, which is based in Joplin, Missouri, has expanded to include offices in Quapaw and Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“Healthcare in America — not just Indian Country — can be confusing at best,” he said. “At worst, it can be dangerous.”
One thing often not discussed is that millions of Native Americans don’t live in a contract-health district, meaning they aren’t allowed to use Indian Health Services.
“IHS is a really good program in some areas, but it’s unfunded. It’s never been funded by the government completely,” he said.
Weaver also advocates for proper mental health services after learning that a cousin committed suicide. “It was an awful experience,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘What happened? He did this to himself. What kind of mental state was he in?”
Mental health is especially important in Indian Country, where trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms can be rampant, Weaver said.
He said he tells tribes that focusing on access to healthcare and quality health programs is a way for them to take what their Native ancestors did and make it even better.
“They didn’t want us to just survive. They wanted us to thrive,” he said.