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Congress fails to pass critical Indian health care bill
Monday, October 13, 2008
Filed Under: Health | National | Politics

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill went home for the November election last week without taking action on one of the biggest priorities for Indian Country.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act has been stalled in Congress for more than seven years. Tribal leaders gained hope when it cleared the Senate in February and appeared ready to pass the House.

Instead, the national economic crisis took center stage and despite last-minute attempts by tribal advocates, the bill failed to get a vote. That left many in Indian Country upset and angry.

"Several members of Congress promised Indian Country that the IHCIA would be passed in the 110th session," said National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia. "Sadly it did not, and sadly Indian people will continue to suffer from astounding health disparities."

When Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, they told NCAI and other Indian organizations like the United South and Eastern Tribes that the IHCIA was their top priority. They criticized Republicans for focusing on gaming and gaming-related controversies in the 109th Congress.

But a different hot-button issue grabbed their attention -- the disenfranchisement of the Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. The tribe came under fire for voting to exclude the descendants of former slaves from citizenship.

Nearly every piece of Indian legislation was put in doubt as lawmakers sought to cut federal funds to the tribe unless the Freedmen were reinstated. The IHCIA passed the Senate without Cherokee restrictions but it stalled in the House, where members had included similar provisions in the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act.

After a federal appeals court cleared the tribe from a lawsuit over the Freedmen, the NAHASDA reauthorization finally advanced in Congress. The tribe credited lawmakers of both parties for removing language that punished the tribe. The bill, H.R.2786, now awaits President Bush's signature.

The IHCIA reauthorization appeared to be headed towards similar success until the economic meltdown dominated the agenda in September, the last full month of work for the 110th Congress. But another sensitive political issue -- abortion -- affected its passage, according to advocates and lobbyists who spoke to Indian Country Today about the bill.

Republicans in the Senate added language to the bill to prevent the Indian Health Service from using federal funds for abortion services. The National Indian Health Board called the amendment unnecessary because existing law contains similar restrictions.

According to ICT, lawmakers didn't want to call a vote on the bill so close to the election because National Right to Life said it would "score" the bill and make it a campaign issue. "We'll fight back if they try to hijack our bill again," Kitty Marx, the legislative director of NIHB, told the paper.

Despite the IHCIA's failure, there were some important achievements in the 110th Congress. Besides the NAHASDA reauthorization, the biggest news was a surprising $2 billion boost for law enforcement, health care and water projects in Indian Country as part of S.2731, a global health bill.

There was also a long overdue recognition for all of the Indian soldiers who used their languages to help the military during World War I, World War II and other operations. H.R.4544, the Code Talkers Recognition Act, awaits Bush's signature.

H.R.6893, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, included a title to put tribes on equal footing with states for federal foster care funds. Bush signed the bill into law on October 7.

H.R.1424, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, also included tribal language. It extended two tax credits that encourage economic development and employment in Indian Country, in addition to the provisions aimed at preventing the American economy from collapsing.

Finally, individual tribes across the country saw action on their bills. H.R.6370, the Oregon Surplus Federal Land Act, a bill to return ancestral land to the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians of Oregon was signed into law on Friday.

S.3128, the White Mountain Apache Tribe Rural Water System Loan Authorization Act, also cleared Congress and is ready for action from Bush. H.R.2963, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians Land Transfer Act, is at the White House.

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