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Bush official pledges support for health care bill

The leader of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is hoping this will be the year for the passage of a landmark Indian health bill.

Saying it was time to put aside turf wars, party politics and other disputes, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) made a big push for reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act at an oversight hearing yesterday. He said a recent visit to his tribe's reservation in Montana made it even more clear that Congress and the Bush administration must work together to clear the bill.

"It's one thing to read the statistics about Indian health but it's another one to see the faces of young kids or elders who have had health problems," Campbell, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, said. "It's not an easy thing to see when you recognize that so many Americans have better health care than people on reservations do."

With time running out in the current Congressional session and with his retirement from the Senate looming, Campbell pressed Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson to commit to taking action on the bill. He was somewhat surprised when Thompson, who just returned from a two-visit to the Navajo Nation, agreed.

"It is time to pass this legislation," Thompson said.

Other lawmakers who attended the hearing, held jointly by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Resources Committee, also took the opportunity to get Thompson on board. "We're waiting anxiously for comments from the administration." said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), noting that yet another panel, the House Ways and Means, has laid claim to the bill as well.

Thompson said his department is ready to go through the bill "line by line" in the next week. He expressed few concerns about its provisions -- with the major exception of language involving tribal consultation -- but even then, he indicated the administration would not fight them.

"If you decide to do it, we'll comply," he said in regard to the consultation policy.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) said reauthorization isn't the only thing Congress should be concerned about. He cited statistics which show the government spends twice as much on health care for prisoners than for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

"It's unforgivable for us not to adequately fund these kinds of issues such as psychologists and social service representatives and others who can reach out and help these kids," he said, referring to a recent suicide problem among Indian youth in his state.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) said the government must act to improve the health status of Indian County before it is too late. Seeing rows and rows of diabetic elders in dialysis treatment is "the most startling and pathetic thing you ever saw."

"Absolutely depressing," agreed Thompson.

"I am very thrilled that you went to Indian Country but I think we have to get commitments earlier out of administrations to go after these Indian health problems," Domenici responded. "They're going to have to get so bad before we decide to do something that it's almost shameful."

S.556 is the latest version of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Not including yesterday's, Campbell has held three hearings on the bill since 2003.

Tribal leaders have testified in favor of reauthorization but there have been delays within the Bush administration, Thompson said it was only recently that the White House Office of Management and Budget cleared him to present testimony.

There was also a small controversy when the Congressional Budget Office "scored" the bill at an extremely high cost. Tribal leaders previously testified that a price can't be place on adequate health care, a sentiment echoed by Campbell.

"Indian people don't care about CBO scores or committee jurisdiction or controversial provisions or even the bickering we get into in Washington," he said. "All they know is they're sick and they're not getting enough help."

"It doesn't have to be that way."

Hearing Links:
Secretary Thompson Statement | Witness List / Testimony