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Senate panel restores urban Indian health program

The campaign to save urban Indian health clinics won another key battle on Tuesday when a Senate panel restored $33 million to the program.

Tribal and Indian organizations have been heavily lobbying Congress ever since President Bush eliminated the program in his fiscal year 2007 budget. They warned of reductions in service, as well as outright closures, among the 34 urban clinics across the nation.

Although the fight isn't finished, the effort has seen cleared some big hurdles. In May, the House passed an Interior appropriations bill that restored the $33 million program.

Yesterday, the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee also acted in Indian Country's favor. In its version of the budget bill, the panel saved the urban health clinics from the cut that threatened their existence.

"After several months of uncertainty and following the tireless efforts of Indian Country," said Geoffrey Roth, the executive director of the National Council of Urban Indian Health," urban Indian health care needs have been overwhelmingly acknowledged by both the Senate and the House."

"The restoration of funds marks not only a huge victory for all urban Indian health programs, but also the ushering in of a new era of unity in Indian Country," he added, citing the joint lobbying effort by his organization, the urban clinics and other groups.

The campaign was supported by members on both sides of the aisle. Republicans and Democrats alike criticized the Bush administration for failing to adequately justify the elimination of the urban Indian health program.

In budget documents, the White House said urban Native Americans will be able to seek care at community health centers in metropolitan areas or return to their reservations to obtain tribal services.

But key lawmakers said the reasoning was faulty, citing Census figures that show the majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in urban areas. Many Native people ended up in cities due to the federal government's relocation programs.

Tribal and Indian health leaders also pointed out that reservation health facilities remain woefully underfunded and would not be able to deal with the influx of patients envisioned by the White House.

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations panel, is one of the lawmakers who opposed the urban health care cut. He said Indian programs "are some of the most important aspects of funding that the Department of Interior provides."

"Health service is also included and if passed, will raise the amount of funding from the current level," he said yesterday after passage of the bill. Domenici also sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Domenici said the bill will now go before the full Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday. It is likely to gain passage without major modifications to the Indian funding levels.

Once the Senate passes the bill, it has to be reconciled with the House version. A joint conference committee will be convened to hammer out any differences before final passage and before being sent to President Bush for his signature.

The Senate's version includes $3.2 billion for the Indian Health Service, $2.27 billion for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $217.8 million for the Office of the Special Trustee. More detailed amounts will be provided by the Senate after consideration on Thursday.

Interior 2007 Appropriations:
H.R.5386 | Report 109-465 | Interior Subcommittee Reports FY 2007 Spending Bill Press Release | House Appropriations Committee Press Release

FY2007 HHS Budget in Brief:

Relevant Links:
National Council of Urban Indian Health -
Indian Health Service -