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Democrats lay out plan for minority and Indian health
Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Accusing Republicans and the Bush administration of ignoring Native Americans, Congressional Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a legislative initiative to improve minority health care.

As part of a larger effort to highlight domestic issues, the Democrats said the Healthcare Equality and Accountability Act of 2003 will expand health coverage for minorities, address health disparities and ensure adequate funding for American Indians and Alaska Natives. "Our bill will make adequate funding for the Indian Health Service mandatory so that we can finally stop the shameful rationing of Indian health care," said Senator Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Daschle was joined by House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the Democratic vice co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus. Both drew attention to the high rates of disease experienced by racial and ethnic minorities, and said those problems were linked to limited funding and resources.

"Because of minorities not being fully in the loop," said Pelosi, "African-Americans suffer from diabetes at a rate of 70 percent higher than White Americans and Native Americans suffer from it at three times the average rate."

"The disparities that exist between Native Americans and the general population are incredible," added Pallone, citing high death rates from disease including diabetes, pneumonia, tuberculosis and alcoholism.

The bill, to be introduced next week, will make funding for IHS an entitlement like Medicare or social security. Calling the levels of funding to IHS an "embarrassment," Pallone said this provision will ensure the federal government is meeting its trust responsibilities.

The legislation elevates the director of the IHS to an assistant secretary of health within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). "It's very important to prioritize that position," Pallone said. Tribal leaders and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have been pushing elevation for several years.

These two goals are also contained in the recently introduced Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which is currently under debate in the House and Senate. The House Resources Committee and the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have held joint hearings to reauthorize several health programs. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Indian committee, has introduced a version of the bill in the Senate.

The entitlement provision draws attention to funding battles between Democrats and Republicans. Although members of both parties have voted to increase the IHS budget, which stands at about $3 billion, Democrats say their colleagues are backing away from specific pledges.

In September, Republicans in the Senate voted down two provisions to boost IHS funds. They cited a need to stay within federal budget rules and guidelines. Some were also concerned about shifting money away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Over the last five years, well over $1 billion in new money has been provided in order to improve health care within our Native American community," said Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) at the time. "Within the extremely limited resources . . . we've been responsive to the needs of the Native Americans."

According to statistics compiled by Daschle, the federal government spends $3,800 per prisoner on health care but only $1,900 for every Native American patient. In some areas, notably on the Navajo Nation, IHS spends a meager $800 per patient.

A study released by the Institute of Medicine called attention to the lagging health care of the nation's minorities. Other reports, including a recent one from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, highlight funding disparities for Native Americans.

Related Stories:
Daschle: Improve Health Care in Indian Country (10/15)
Smoking rates among Natives highest in nation (10/10)
Senate votes down health and trust measures (09/24)
Drug use among Natives highest in nation (09/17)
Cancer rates on the decline in Indian Country (09/03)
Health studies show Indian Country disparities (08/01)
Diabetes rates explode in Indian Country (05/07)
CDC atlas documents disparity in stroke deaths (02/21)
Tribes told to explore health funding options (02/05)
Indian Country receives diabetes grants (12/11)
Congress approves $750M for Indian diabetes (11/21)
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Elder care study shows worsening problems (07/11)
Report stresses importance of health insurance (5/22)
Poor Indian health blamed on federal failures (3/21)
CDC: Death rates at record lows, except Indians (10/11)
CDC: Indian mothers heaviest smokers (8/29)
Indian Country ranks high in deaths (6/27)
Cancer deaths increase in Indian Country (6/6)
CDC: HIV statistics point to new 'epidemic' (6/1)

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