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Native Sun News: Billy Mills talks diabetes at NIHB conference

The following story was written and reported by Talli Naumann, Native Sun News Environment and Health Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Billy Mills shared diabetes experiences at Consumer Conference. Photo courtesy/National Indian Health Board

Billy Mills addresses diabetes
By Talli Naumann
Native Sun News
Environment and Health Editor

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Olympic Gold Medalist and humanitarian, Billy Mills brought people to their feet in standing ovation as he shared his experiences with diabetes and traditional healing in the Aug. 28 plenary session of the National Indian Health Board's 30th Annual Consumer Conference.

An Oglala Lakota, Mills grew up on the reservation and has lived with borderline diabetes for most of his life. In the Olympic race that won him the gold medal he experienced tingling fingers and blurry vision -- both symptoms of diabetes, he recalled in his conference speech. "One lap to go. I was pushed,” he said. “I didn't quit but I could feel myself accept third place. I will let them get 10 yards ahead of me. At this point I could feel the tingling sensation, with my vision coming and going. 150 meters to go and I was nine yards behind, 120 meters and 8.5 meters behind, 100 meters and 8 meters behind. Someone cut into me, but the fourth lane opened up.

“Lifting my knees, strengthening my stride I took my opportunity. As I went by in the center of my opponent's jersey was an eagle, and I heard my dad, 'If you follow the teachings, you will have the wings of an eagle.'

“In my mind, I was thinking I will never be this close again. Then I felt the tape break across my chest. A Japanese official said, 'Who are you?' At that point, I had to find the German and tell him that his eagle helped me win. I found him but there was no eagle on his jersey, just the Olympic rings.

“It was a simple perception. Perceptions can create us or destroy us. We need to take control of them. Diabetes can take control of us. The traditional virtues and values give us confidence and clarity to take control. Realizing that is the easy part, the hard part is doing it every day," Mills said.

The growing epidemic of diabetes represents one of Indian country's public health challenges. American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest prevalence of diabetes amongst all U.S. racial and ethnic groups.

In response to this epidemic, Congress established the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) in 1997. It is up for renewal in 2014. Tribal Leaders Diabetes Committee Chair Buford Rolin said that SDPI continues to improve the health of Indian country and has led to significant advances in diabetes treatment, prevention, and education.

SDPI program are achieving dramatic reductions in risk factors such as blood pressure, weight, bad cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

"Diabetes is an issue that we care so passionately about,” Rolin said. “Our collaborative efforts, as tribal leaders and tribal health care professionals, will help keep Indian country on a path to a diabetes-free future.

Rolin, who is also the Chair of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, said that Congress should renew the program past fiscal year 2014. “The lives of our people depend on it," he said.

Following are remarks from some of the conference speakers:

"We are so honored to have Billy here with us today," said NIHB Chair Cathy Abramson. “His words are inspiring and he truly makes everyone feel special. He is someone filled with positive energy. I believe the Creator is using him to help make our people achieve their dreams whether it's running a marathon, living a healthier lifestyle or improving their health through traditional foods and healing."

Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, acting director of the Indian Health Service, gave an overview of the Affordable Care Act.

"Meeting with tribes and tribal organizations, such as the NIHB, is a very important part of our agency consultation efforts and IHS's priority to renew and strengthen our partnership with Tribes. We value our partnership with NIHB as we work together to change and improve the IHS and to eliminate health disparities in Indian country," Roubideaux said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs partnered with NIHB to host the second Native veterans' health workshop track at this year's conference.

"We are committed to nurturing an environment that fosters trust and provides culturally competent care for Native American veterans, including creating culturally sensitive outreach materials, incorporating traditional practices and rituals into treatment and ensuring the best possible experience when Native American veterans receive care from the VA," said John Garcia, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "We at the VA are further committed to working with and for tribal leaders on a nation-to-nation basis to address the many issues being experienced by veterans and their families across Indian country."

Mary Wakefield, administrator for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), said that under the leadership of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, one of the top goals is to improve health equity with Indian tribes.

"We want to eliminate health disparities among American Indians and Alaska Natives. And, we believe we can do that by working toward two other goals - to strengthen the health workforce by expanding the supply of culturally competent primary health care providers in Indian country and Alaska and to improve access to quality health care and services by increasing the number of health care access points," Wakefield said.

Mirtha Beadle, deputy administrator for Operations with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in HHS focused her speech on behavioral health issues, noting that American Indian and Alaska Natives have the highest level of substance abuse and dependence and unmet need.

"The emphasis is growing on screening and early intervention services. Evidence-based practices are an important shift for behavioral health. There is an increased need to focus on bilingual populations in the US. American Indians and Alaska Natives stand to benefit substantially from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act," Beadle added.

Susan McNally, Senior Advisor in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) provided a brief overview of the health plans that OPM directs under the Affordable Care Act. OPM will work with private insurance to offer two state health plans - the Multi-State Plan and the Federal Employee Health Benefits program, which OPM has managed for nearly 40 years, she said.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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