December 15, 2009

Udall Urges Quick Passage of Indian Health Reform Legislation

WASHINGTON - U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) highlighted on the Senate floor the disparities Native Americans face in gaining access to quality health care, urging his colleagues to reform the Indian health care system as part of the larger health care overhaul.

In his remarks, Udall noted that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which provides the framework under which Native American health care programs are delivered, hasn't been reauthorized in more than a decade.

"This means the Indian Health Services delivery system is chronically underfunded and, given the rapid advance of health care technology, outdated. As a result, too many Native Americans are struggling to receive quality, timely health care," Udall said. "This agency is supposed to be the principal health care provider and health advocate for the Indian people. Yet, every day, because we fail to act, the health care situation in Indian Country grows more urgent."

Udall highlighted alarming statistics from the Civil Rights Commission that the United States spends twice the amount on a federal prisoner's care than for that of a Native American - $3,800 per year, per federal inmate vs. $1,900 per year, per Native American.

"That's right: our inmates have better health care than the population with whom we signed treaties and made a promise to provide health services," Udall said, noting that the discrepancy is even worse when you look at federal health spending on the general population, which is more than $5,000 per person, per year.

Right now in Indian Country, the health care situation is dire. Native Americans 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. Just recently, over the course of little more than one month, four young people from the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico took their own lives.

Udall is an original co-sponsor of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-ND.

The bill would:

  • Permanently re-authorize all current Indian health care programs.
  • Authorize 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
  • Authorize 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.
  • Establish 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.
  • Establish demonstration projects that provide incentives to use innovative facility construction methods, such as modular component construction and mobile health stations, to save money and improve access to health care services.
  • Require that the IHS budget account for medical inflation rates and population growth, in order to combat the dramatic underfunding of the Indian health system. 
  • Begin addressing the epidemic of teen suicide in Indian Country with new funding to help teach Native youth life skills to prevent suicide.

"It is time to act on this important piece of our nation's health care overhaul. It is time to reform the Indian health care system and permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act," Udall said.