Obama selects Native woman for IHS position
A member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota made history on Monday as the first Native woman to be nominated as director of the Indian Health Service.

In selecting Yvette Roubideaux, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, President Barack Obama. cited her "extensive" research on Indian health issues. The White House said she has paid particular attention to diabetes, a disease that afflicts American Indians and Alaska Natives at record rates.

But Roubideaux's biggest selling point is bound to be her support for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. She testified on the bill nearly nine years ago and tribes have yet to see it clear Congress.

"We support reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and its reaffirmation of the federal trust responsibility to provide health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and the sovereign rights of tribes to self-determination and self-governance," Roubideaux said as then-president of the Association of American Indian Physicians.

If confirmed by the Senate, Roubideaux will have the chance to push the IHCIA through Congress and get it on the president's desk. Obama co-sponsored the bill when he was in the Senate and included it in his campaign platform.

That would be a major shift from the Bush era, when the White House and Republican lawmakers kept the bill from advancing by raising objection after objection. At the same time, officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the IHS were promising to support it.

A new version of the bill has not been introduced during the 111th Congress. But supporters on both sides of the aisle believe the change in the political climate will finally lead to success.

"I think this is the year," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, told the National Congress of American Indians earlier this month.

Roubideaux, who served on Obama's transition team, received her medical degree Harvard Medical School and her master of public health degree from Harvard School of Public Health. In her biography for a government exhibition on women physicians, she said her early experiences with the IHS motivated her to become a doctor.

"My first encounters with the healthcare system were as a patient in the Indian Health Service," Roubideaux recalled. "The IHS is severely underfunded and understaffed, and I often waited four to six hours to see a doctor."

"As a teenager, I realized that I had never seen an American Indian physician and felt that by becoming a physician I could do something to help improve healthcare for American Indian communities," she added.

Roubideaux went on to work for the IHS, serving tribes in Arizona. She now serves as co-director of the Coordinating Center for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians Competitive Demonstration Projects, and as director of two programs at her university that focus on recruiting American Indians and Alaska Natives into the health and research fields.

Obama, who said his first budget will include more than $4 billion for the IHS, has vowed to reform the nation's health care system but his efforts suffered an early blow when former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota), a strong tribal advocate, withdrew his nomination as HHS Secretary. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) has been tapped to lead the agency but has not been confirmed by the Senate.

The outgoing IHS director is Bob McSwain, a member of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians who was a Bush appointee. He replaced Charles Grim, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma whose testimony on the IHCIA was edited by the White House to remove references to the government's legal obligations to provide health care to Native Americans.

White House Announcement:
President Obama Announces More Key Administration Posts (March 23, 2009)

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