Opinion: Indian health care and public insurance
"Montana Sen. Max Baucus , a leading architect of national health-care reform, visited the Flathead Indian Reservation near Pablo, Mont., in May, and he was confronted with a surprising critique. "I hope any [new health-care] plan does not forget the nation's first people," Dr. LeAnne Muzquiz told the senator. Another person in the audience, according to the newspaper the Missoulian , followed up by telling the senator that the legislation pending in Congress would in fact do just that.

Native Americans have received federally funded health care for decades. A series of treaties, court cases and acts passed by Congress requires that the government provide low-cost and, in many cases, free care to American Indians. The Indian Health Service (IHS) is charged with delivering that care.

The IHS attempts to provide health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives in one of two ways. It runs 48 hospitals and 230 clinics for which it hires doctors, nurses, and staff and decides what services will be provided. Or it contracts with tribes under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act passed in 1975. In this case, the IHS provides funding for the tribe, which delivers health care to tribal members and makes its own decisions about what services to provide.

The IHS spends about $2,100 per Native American each year, which is considerably below the $6,000 spent per capita on health care across the U.S. But IHS spending per capita is about on par with Finland, Japan, Spain and other top 20 industrialized countries—countries that the Obama administration has said demonstrate that we can spend far less on health care and get better outcomes. In addition, IHS spending will go up by about $1 billion over the next year to reach a total of $4.5 billion by 2010. That includes a $454 million increase in its budget and another $500 million earmarked for the agency in the stimulus package.

Unfortunately, Indians are not getting healthier under the federal system. In 2007, rates of infant mortality among Native Americans across the country were 1.4 times higher than non-Hispanic whites and rates of heart disease were 1.2 times higher. HIV/AIDS rates were 30% higher, and rates of liver cancer and inflammatory bowel disease were two times higher. Diabetes-related death rates were four times higher. On average, life expectancy is four years shorter for Native Americans than the population as a whole."

Get the Story:
Terry Anderson: Native Americans and the Public Option (The Wall Street Journal 8/29)

Related Stories:
Opinion: Self-determination works for tribes (4/3)
Carole Goldberg: Sovereignty leads to success (3/20)
Opinion: Sacrifice sovereignty for economic change (3/16)

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