What Are Lawmakers Doing to Fix Health Services for Native Americans?

Published July 12, 2017

WASHINGTON – Have you tried getting medical care late in the year? How was your experience? If you are like most Native Americans, you have heard this familiar refrain: “Federal funding has run out for the year. Try getting care next year.” This is unacceptable, and there are members of Congress who are looking to do something about it.

Free Health Care Is a Right

In exchange for the millions of hectares of land that federally-recognized tribes have ceded to the United States government, the government is obligated to provide you with free health care. That care is provided by the horribly anachronistically-named Indian Health Service (IHS), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Since IHS was formed over 60 years ago, it has been plagued with accusations of mismanagement and other scandals, such as the sterilizing of Native American women against their will in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

In a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs earlier this year, tribal leaders described the many problems Native Americans have faced while trying to obtain health care, including outdated equipment, staff shortages, crumbling facilities, and faulty medical diagnoses. These are life and death issues for a population that suffers from higher death rates due to diabetes, respiratory disease, and chronic liver disease. And, most Native Americans cannot afford topurchase private health insurance.

IHS Overhaul

It appears lawmakers in theHouse of Representatives and Senateare listening to the calls for reform. In May, both branches introduced bills calling for a total IHS overhaul. Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said in a statement that IHS has “fallen short in providing high-quality medical care throughout Indian Country.” He continued, “The long history of failures at IHS are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”You can read his full statement here.

The proposed Senate bill,The Restoring Accountability in the IHS Act (S.1250), would

  • Offer incentives for nurses and doctors to stay on the job
  • Increase accountability and transparency at IHS
  • Protect whistleblowers who report violations of safety and health regulations
  • Streamline the hiring of medical staff

The House bill was introduced by Kristi Noem of South Dakota. It is identical to the Senate bill and similar to legislation that stalled while Obama was in office. Native Americans worry this new bill will also fall to the wayside. In the meantime, President Trump has asked for a decrease in funding for IHS for the Fiscal Year 2018.

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