March 24, 2010

Udall Celebrates Reauthorization of Indian Health Act as Part of Health Care Reform

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Tom Udall today highlighted the inclusion of long-needed reforms to the Indian health system as part of the historic health care overhaul signed into law this week by President Obama.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act includes a provision to permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), which had not been updated in more than a decade. Udall was an original co-sponsor of legislation introduced last year by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND, to reauthorize IHCIA.

"For too many years, our country's First Americans have suffered needlessly because the federal government hasn't been living up to its promise to them," Udall said. "With passage of this reform, we take additional steps toward meeting our obligation by permanently reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, allowing us to better plan for Native health care needs now and in the future."

The current health care situation for Native people is dire. They are diagnosed with diabetes at almost three times the rate of any other ethnic group, they often don't have access to preventive care, and Native youth are attempting and committing suicide at alarming rates. Last year, over the course of less than two months, four young people from the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico took their own lives.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act includes measures advocated by Udall to combat the growing epidemic of teen suicide in Indian Country, where the rate of suicide is 70 percent higher than the general U.S. population. It would expand a program that has proven successful for the Zuni Tribe in New Mexico which connects schools and parents with the community, teaches students to be peer educators, and helps middle and high school students learn life skills to prevent suicide. New Mexico, which has the fifth highest Native American population in the country, also has the seventh highest rate of suicide for youth ages 10 through 24 years old.

"Teen suicide is a tragedy that is tearing apart too many Native American families, especially in my home state of New Mexico," Udall said. "This is heartbreaking and unacceptable, and we are working to do something about it with this reform."

In addition to Udall's youth suicide prevention measures, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act:

  • Authorizes programs to increase the recruitment and retention of health care professionals - such as updates to the scholarship program and demonstration programs which promote new, innovative models of health care - to improve access to health care for Indians and Alaska Natives.
  • Authorizes long-term care, including home health care, assisted living, and community based care. Current law provides for none of these forms of long-term care.
  • Establishes mental and behavioral health programs beyond alcohol and substance abuse, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and child sexual abuse and domestic violence prevention programs.
  • Establishes demonstration projects that provide incentives to use innovative facility construction methods, such as modular component construction and mobile health stations, to increase access to health care services.
  • Requires that the IHS budget account for medical inflation rates and population growth, in order to combat the dramatic underfunding of the Indian health system.