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Indian Country rallies for health care in U.S. Capitol
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Filed Under: Health | National | Politics

More than 100 tribal leaders and tribal members packed the halls of Congress on Wednesday to rally for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The law expired in 2000 and has been met repeatedly with opposition from the Bush administration. But supporters hoped they will finally see success this year with the help of key lawmakers.

"The time to pass the IHCIA is now," said H. Sally Smith, the chairman of the National Indian Health Board, one of the many groups behind yesterday's strong showing on Capitol Hill.

Smith and other tribal leaders were joined by Congressional backers at a raucous rally in the U.S. Capitol Building. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey) vowed to move the IHCIA reauthorization.

"We will pass this bill if it's the last thing we do," said Inouye to loud applause.

The rally followed the Senate Finance Committee's approval of the Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) portions of the bill. Baucus, the chairman of the committee, said passage was long overdue.

"We owe the first inhabitants of this nation better access to quality health care," he said at the markup yesterday morning. "We owe them medical care consistent with the medical care found in mainstream hospitals and clinics. We owe them the same medical care that we provide to the other members of our family."

The action by the Finance committee means S.1200 can receive a floor vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) has promised to schedule debate.

But the bill still faces opposition from the Bush administration and from Republicans who closely follow the White House. Last fall, a small group of GOP Senators blocked the reauthorization on the eve of passage based on a "white paper" written by the Department of Justice.

The administration has again outlined its concerns with the bill and delivered a written statement to the Finance committee at 10:30pm on Tuesday night, Baucus said. Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which previously approved the bill, said yesterday they had yet to review the document.

Over in the House, the Natural Resources Committee has approved H.R.1328. But the Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee have yet to report out the bill.

Tribal advocates believe it is critical for the bill to be approved this year. If it is delayed until 2008, it will be overshadowed by the presidential election, they say.

"For more than 14 years, Congress has failed to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and complete a comprehensive review and modernization of Native American health care. This is simply unacceptable," said Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois), a presidential hopeful and one of the co-sponsors of the bill.

In hopes of securing passage, the NIHB, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Council of Urban Indian Health and even the National Indian Gaming Association have made the IHCIA their top legislative priority. "Indian Country simply can't wait any longer for this legislation to be reauthorized," said NCAI President Joe Garcia.

IHCIA modernizes the way health care is delivered to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Among other provisions, it gives tribes more flexibility to address the needs of their individual communities.

IHCIA was first passed in 1976 and was reauthorized in 1992. Tribal leaders have been working on the current bill since the late 1990s.

Finance Committee Documents:
Markup | Press Release | Open Executive Session to consider the “The Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP Indian Health Care Improvement Act of 2007” (September 12, 2007)

Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments:
H.R.1328 | S.1200

Relevant Documents:
Letter to President Bush | Letter to Alberto Gonzales | DOJ White Paper

Relevant Links:
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov
National Indian Health Board - http://www.nihb.org

Related Stories:
Indian health care markup, rally in Washington (9/12)
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Senate field hearing on Indian health in Montana (8/15)
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