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Indian health care push heads to House

The push to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act continued last week with a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the chairman of the committee, expressed anger at the failure to renew the law, which expired in 2000 He blamed the delays on Bush administration, singling out the release of a "white paper" that killed the bill last fall.

"I wonder how many young Indian children suffered needlessly because of that action," he said.

Dr. Charles Grim, the director of the Indian Health Service, said the administration "strongly" supports reauthorization. But the bill, H.R.1328, faces the same objections outlined in the white paper, including services for urban Indians, malpractice suits for home and traditional care and other organizational changes.

A panel of tribal leaders refuted the criticism. Buford Rolin, the chairman of Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, said the concerns over who can receive health services were unfounded because the definition of "Indian" has remained the same for more than 30 years.

Rolin also compared the state of Indian health care to the national scandal over dismal conditions for Iraqi war veterans at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.

"Indian people accessing services from the Indian Health Service system face problems similar to those at Walter Reed and other Veterans Affairs hospitals: old facilities, obsolete equipment, bureaucratic red tape and waiting years for specialty services most Americans receive in weeks or months," said Rolin, the co-chair of the national steering committee to reauthorize the IHCIA.

Linda Holt, the chairwoman of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, brought a stirring message to the committee. Citing her personal experience with methamphetamine, she said tribes need the flexibility that the IHCIA reauthorization will provide in order to respond to the needs of their people.

"I'm the mother of a meth addict," said Holt, a council member for the Suquamish Tribe of Washington. "I've seen the progression, I've seen what it has done to my family. I've seen my son in and out of institutions, getting treatment, and I've seen him in and out of correctional facilities that have done nothing for his condition."

Holt decried the "deplorable" lack of funding for substance abuse and mental health. "My tribe, in our IHS funding, our mental health funding is $327 a year. What are we supposed to do with that?" she asked.

All of the committee members who attended the hearing were supportive of the reauthorization. Some of the most pointed questions to Dr. Grim of the IHS came from Republicans, including Rep. Steve Pearce of New Mexico and Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who tried to renew the law when he was chairman and now serves as the ranking member.

Rahall said he hopes to report the bill as soon as possible. But the bill also has to go before the Energy and Natural Resources and the Ways and Means committees in the House.

In the Senate, the Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the reauthorization last week, although the Senate version of the bill hasn't been introduced yet.

House Hearing:
Full Committee Legislative Hearing: Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 (March 14, 2007)

House Bill:
Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007 (H.R.1328)

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

Relevant Links:
Indian Health Service -
National Indian Health Board -