We hope Congress and President Bush will show the wisdom to soon pass the Indian Health Care Act. A recently introduced bipartisan bill last week passed three key House committees and now heads to the floor for discussion. While this vital act wouldn't increase funding for Indian health care, it would help ensure that medical and dental services are provided more efficiently and that more can receive them.
While it's true that some tribes have grown wealthy via casino operations and diverse portfolios from their earnings, the reality is that most Native Americans remain impoverished and do not receive adequate health care. An example is right here in Del Norte County, where the 5,000-member Yurok tribe has members living without electricity. Even though the tribe may receive a compact to open a small casino and has agreed to a large cash settlement with the federal government, the availability of money from those gains may be years off. In any case, not all tribes operate casinos, and most of those remain in a state of poverty. Because of this impoverishment, many American Indians must endure levels of health care far below that of the general population. Indeed, the infant mortality rate for Indians is 150 percent higher than that of other Americans.
While many states and the federal government offer programs that ensure those in poverty, regardless of their ethnic or racial group, receive health care, American Indians are in a unique situation. Forced decades ago onto reservations, well over a third of American Indians reside in remote areas dozens of miles from the nearest health care provider or hospital. Because of this, money in the act goes toward the recruitment and retention of health care professionals to work in reservation facilities.
The act also would spend dollars on consolidating substance abuse, mental health and social service programs to treat patients in a holistic manner and to modernize existing facilities.
Indian Health Care Act has been on hold since 2001. Since then, two attempts to pass it in Congress have failed. Now comes attempt No. 3. We hope this Congress doesn't strike out.v