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Aaron Payment: Affordable Care Act boosts Indian Country health

Aaron Payment, the chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians speaks at the White House Tribal Nations Conference in Washington, D.C, on November 5, 2015. Still image from White House / YouTube

Join me in celebrating the passage of the Affordable Care Act
By Aaron A. Payment
Chairperson, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians

The Affordable Care Act has proven successful among the poorest of the poor in the United States.

American Indians and Alaskan Natives, long recognized as having the highest poverty rates of any ethnic group, have better access to medical care more than ever before. We can thank the Affordable Care Act.

Right now in America, 40 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations live in poverty — 20.5 percent of their homes lack complete kitchens, 25 percent lack complete plumbing, and almost 20 percent lack telephones. The average age of death is 50. The picture is pretty bleak.

Health care conditions are appalling. Most health care is rationed out on a “life or limb” basis, meaning health care is mostly just symptomatic treatment of illness. Mortality rates of American Indians are astronomical, especially when comparing them to all other Americans: Alcoholism deaths rates are 552 percent higher, Diabetes death rates are 182 percent higher, death from unintentional injuries is 138 percent higher and suicide rates are 74 percent higher.

Passage of the Affordable Care Act marks an opportunity for all Americans, even those of us who are the most poor, to obtain health care coverage. For Indian Country, the Affordable Care Act has helped our Native Peoples in so many significant ways:

The White House on YouTube: President Obama Signs Health Reform Into Law

First, it provides permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Service. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, the US Congress was never able to do that. For the entire eight years prior to the Obama Presidency, Indian Health was stagnant with level funding and a failure to re-authorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The Obama Administration picked up from the 1990s Hillarycare and permanently re-authorized IHS funding as apart of the Affordable Care Act. President Obama’s current proposed budget includes up to 8 percent increases for IHS and full, mandatory funding for Contract Support Costs. The mandatory nature, rather than discretionary, is historical as this fund is then truly a fulfillment of the treaty obligation.

Second, the Act is responsible for a dramatic increase in health care coverage of Native Americans. Between 2011 and 2014, there has been a 17 percent reduction in uninsured American Indians and Alaska Natives across the United States. In Michigan, the number of uninsured Native Americans fell by 16 percent.

On a very personal level, my younger brother has several chronic diseases, including alcoholism, Type II Diabetes, Pancreatitis, and last year contacted MRSA and nearly died. The hospital medical social worker was invaluable in signing up my brother for Medicaid expansion so he could receive the hospitalization and aftercare he needed. He is alive today because of the Affordable Care Act.

Join me this month in celebrating the passage of the Affordable Care Act.

Aaron A. Payment serves as chairperson of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, a position he has held since 2012 and previously from 2004 to 2008. He currently serves on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and has held numerous tribal and state positions in Michigan.

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