- By Chuck Hoskin Jr
Cherokee Nation is strongest when our people have healthy bodies and minds. Too many Cherokees suffer with health conditions that could be exponentially improved with easier access to exercise, healthy food and support for their mental well-being. Within our tribal health system at Cherokee Nation, we know it is much healthier and less expensive to address these issues before they become a medical emergency.
Spurred by that philosophy, Deputy Chief Bryan Warner and I proposed the Cherokee Nation Public Health and Wellness Fund Act last year. The act, passed by the Council of the Cherokee Nation, allows the tribe to spend millions annually on wellness centers and substance abuse treatment for our citizens.
Funding for this initiative comes from third-party revenues collected by Cherokee Nation Health Services through health insurance claims. About 7 percent of our third-party health care revenues are dedicated to building and operating substance abuse treatment facilities and wellness centers.
We are able to capture that revenue because of the high-quality, compassionate work of our nurses, doctors and other staff within our health system. Tribal citizens who are insured and have other options to get treatment are still choosing Cherokee Nation Health. These revenues allow us to reinvest in improving health care and the overall health of Cherokees. We are building new facilities across the reservation and expanding part of the W.W. Hastings Medical Campus to be a hub for behavioral health and wellness programs.
Building on the Public Health and Wellness Fund Act, we created the Task Force on Physical Wellness that is helping us plan programming, future facilities and opportunities to work in the community for wellness. The task force, led by former Cherokee Councilman Canaan Duncan, will help shape our wellness programs for the next decade.
A key aspect of the wellness task force’s work will be helping design something long needed: a planned $10 million wellness center in Adair County. Our own study of health disparities revealed that the need for wellness services was the highest in Adair County. The task force will also help us plan our $10 million community center in Kenwood and other facilities and wellness programs across the reservation.
We are celebrating the Public Health and Wellness Fund Act by expanding it. In April, the Council will consider a proposal by Deputy Chief Warner and I to improve the law in a way that increases the amount of revenue earmarked for mental health and physical wellness programs, more than $12 million annually.
The proposal also does something historic: It commits funds from our recent opioid settlements to address drug addiction. Last fall we settled our pioneering litigation against opioid distributors, the first such case ever brought by a tribe. Deputy Chief Warner and I propose a commitment of $15 million from that settlement over the next three years to help construct drug treatment facilities.
Although $15 million falls short of what it will take to build the kind of comprehensive mental health and drug treatment center the Cherokee people deserve, it is a solid start. It is also a measure of justice by bringing healing to our people using funds from the very industry that injured us.
Ultimately, the Public Health and Wellness Fund Act will help bring about something transformational – knocking down the barriers between mental health and physical health. What really matters is that the Cherokee people individually and collectively achieve wellness. That takes a wholistic approach, bringing health to mind and body.
The Cherokee people have asked for more resources for mental health, addiction treatment, nutrition and physical fitness, and we are delivering. Improving health and wellness helps to save money in our health care system, but we know the most important return on this investment is not measured in dollars; it is measured in longer, healthier, happier lives for our people.
Chuck Hoskin, Jr. is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
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