Senate committee preparing to focus on health

WASHINGTON - In brief meetings April 9 and 10, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs began to clear the deck of comparatively minor but time-consuming legislative items in preparation for turning its full attention to the Indian Heath Care Reauthorization Act of 2003.

The 350-plus page document will require precision fine-tuning before it goes to "mark up," the ubiquitous colloquial phrase on Capitol Hill for the business meeting that moves a bill "as amended" from its committee of origin to the full Senate floor for consideration and sometimes a vote.

April 9, the committee held a hearing on three separate bills concerning Indian health. S. 285 proposes a demonstration project for tribes that wish to consolidate their behavioral health care projects, especially substance abuse and mental health programs, into an automated management information system. Hoskie Benally Jr., an executive health care provider on the Navajo Nation, testified that data collection for crucial accreditations was "almost impossible to accomplish" on a manual basis.

Automated management information systems have made all the difference, he added. But he cautioned that they can be cost-effective only when planned for and implemented carefully.

"Recently, IHS has made the decision to write and develop their own MIS for substance abuse ? there are excellent programs that exist in the field for possibly half the cost. Therefore, it may not be the most cost effective approach for IHS. We have been waiting for more than three years for IHS to respond to the need or treatment programs to have 'real time' data that they can access simply by sitting at their computer."

S. 558 would elevate the director of IHS to the title of Assistant Secretary for Indian Health, a move resisted by the parent Indian Health Service as unnecessary, but supported by tribes as underscoring the status of federal health care for Indians, according to Julia Davis-Wheeler, chairperson of the National Indian Health Board in Denver.

S. 555 would establish a Native American Health and Wellness Foundation, primarily for purposes of receiving private donations in support of Indian health care - donations a government agency like IHS cannot now accept. The proposal seems popular in all the right places so far. It is currently under review in the Bush executive branch. Dr. Charles Grim, considered a shoe-in Bush nominee to direct the Indian Health Service, has expressed approval of the bill's purpose, according to a top aide of Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., co-chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

On April 10, S. 521 and 522 got through a mark up meeting, according to committee staff. S. 521 would extend the terms of various leases and S. 522 would promote tribal energy resource development.

These bills can be reviewed at http://indian.senate.gov. Click on Legislation at left of the splash page and scroll down to the bill in its numerical order, then click on the bill number.