Why the Affordable Care Act is Important to the Cherokee Nation and Cherokee People

Guest Commentary
Principal Chief Bill John Baker

Principal Chief Bill John Baker

Helping improve health care for the Cherokee people is something I’ve made the cornerstone of my administration. Since being elected Principal Chief in 2011, we’ve allocated more casino profits to fund contract health. We’re also using an additional $100 million of those casino profits to build new health clinics and expansion of W.W. Hastings Hospital.

As I’ve said many times, if you don’t have your health care, you have nothing.

As you may know, American Indian basic health care is a federal trust responsibility that is guaranteed forever through treaty agreements. Enrolled tribal citizens are provided with health care coverage administered by the Indian Health Service (IHS). Unfortunately, the IHS budget is underfunded year after year. The Cherokee Nation receives less than half our actual health care needs, so we supplement that and stretch our health care dollars to help as many patients as possible.

But there will always be some limitations. That’s exactly why enrolling in a plan under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is vitally important for Cherokee Nation citizens and our tribal health care system.

Although the ACA does not require Native Americans to acquire health insurance, the available plans can be a valuable tool for you, your family and our tribal health care system. I encourage all Cherokee citizens to become familiar with the law, learn about the various plans and consider signing up.  Although open enrollment is currently underway, Native Americans can sign up on the ACA Marketplace at any time.

At Cherokee Nation, about half of our patient population is uninsured. Our health centers don’t require insurance, but insurance is accepted. When patients use health insurance at our health centers, the Cherokee Nation receives payment for care that would otherwise be uncompensated.

This brings money into the Cherokee Nation health care system that we can then utilize to expand services for all patients. Acquiring health insurance means needed financial resources will be available to help ensure the success of our health care system far into the future. We will be better able to keep our health centers financially stable, be able to offer better services and keep Cherokee citizens healthier.

If our tribal citizens acquire private health insurance through the ACA, each visit to a Cherokee Nation health center or contract health appointment can be billed to insurance. That would boost revenue for the tribe and enable our health care dollars to go farther for everyone.

For as little as a few dollars a month, an ACA insurance plan could mean a safety net for those illnesses that require a specialist not covered by federal dollars, or for citizens who fall outside our jurisdictional service areas. Many Cherokee citizens have already found plans and are paying just pennies on the dollar for coverage.

We can’t stress enough how important it is for our citizens to pursue ACA plans. We have trained staff at every Cherokee Nation health center and the W.W. Hastings Hospital to assist Cherokee citizens with the process and paperwork.

For general information on the Affordable Care Act, visit www.tribalhealthcare.org or www.healthcare.org

Wado and Merry Christmas.

John Bill Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.

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