Sen. Daschle: The time has come to improve health care in Indian country

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Through treaties and Federal statute, the federal government has promised to provide health care to American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Sadly, our federal government has not even come close to honoring that commitment. While the Indian Health Service is the only source of health care for many Indians and is required to provide it, funding has never been adequate. Despite this treaty obligation and evidence showing a major health care crisis in Indian country, Republicans in Congress continue to vote against even the most basic increase in funding for Indian health care.

The meager funding for Indian health care is all the more shocking when compared to other groups for which the federal government has direct responsibility for health care. A Civil Rights Commission report investigating health care funding for Native Americans found that our government spends about $5,000 per capita each year for health care for the general U.S. population and $3,803 for federal prisoners. Shockingly, the federal government spends only $1,914 per capita for Indian health care, roughly half of what we spend for federal prisoners.

The results of this neglect are apparent in countless communities in South Dakota and across the country. The July U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report documented shocking health care disparities between Indians and other Americans. Native Americans have a lower life expectancy than other Americans and a disproportionate number of serious medical problems. Indians have the highest rates of diabetes in the country, the highest rates of heart disease, the highest rates of sudden infant death syndrome and the highest rates of tuberculosis.

Additionally, Native Americans are often denied care most of us take for granted, and in many cases would consider essential. They are often required to endure long waits before seeing a doctor and may be unable to obtain a referral to see a specialist. Sometimes lack of funds means care is postponed until Indians are literally at risk of losing their lives or their limbs. Other times, they receive no care at all. The end result is a population that lives sicker and dies younger than other Americans.

The case for immediate action could not be more compelling. Native Americans have the greatest need, the greatest number of extraordinarily difficult health problems, yet they have one-half the resources we commit to federal prisoners.

Sadly, Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration have chosen to turn a blind eye to the health care needs of Native Americans. When Republicans had the chance to approve an amendment I offered to provide an additional $2.9 billion to the Indian Health Service, the measure was defeated on a party-line vote. Months later, Republicans again rejected a second amendment that would have provided a modest $292 million increase in funding for the IHS - an amendment they earlier had claimed to support.

Native Americans are facing a literal "life or limb" test before they can access health care today. The problem is real. The solution is simple. We must start giving the Indian Health Service the funds it needs to provide Native Americans the health benefits they were promised.

This fight will not be easily won, but I am committed to improving health care in Indian country. The United States has promised to provide health care for Native Americans, and I will continue to work as hard as I can to make good on that promise.

Tom Daschle, a Democrat, is the senior senator from South Dakota and serves as the Senate Minority Leader. In addition to his leadership post, Daschle also serves as a member of the Agriculture, Finance and Rules Committees. In past Congresses, he has served on the Veterans Affairs, Indian Affairs and Ethics committees. Daschle is a native of Aberdeen, S.D.