Health Care Reform Desperately Needed For Native Americans

Nespelem Tribal Health Center, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

Health care reform is touted as a top priority by the Obama administration, and one need only look to Tribal reservations to see the urgency. Treaty obligations and acts of Congress require the United States to provide health care for Native Americans, but in 2004 a Civil Rights Commission report found the government spent more per capita on health care for federal prisoners than for Native Americans.

In addition to the lack of direct funding, Tribal members suffer from a lack of access to rural doctors and clinics. As reported by The Seattle Times, two years ago Michael Buckingham of the Makah Tribe lost two fingers in a fishing accident in the waters off his reservation, in the isolated coastal town of Neah Bay, Washington. Buckingham needed physical therapy for a third finger that was severely injured, but couldn't afford the gas to make 70-mile trips to the closest therapy clinic in Port Angeles. "If I can't get it fixed, I'm just ready to have it cut off, because it's too painful," Buckingham said.

The lack of federal funding for health care has resulted in many Native Americans being forced to live with chronic pain, forgo prenatal care, and suffer from untreated depression. The Indian Health Service presently operates only 31 hospitals nationwide, less than one per state.  President Obama has proposed a $4 billion budget for the IHS, a $700 million increase. Yet with federal spending at an all time high and Congress focused on the country’s financial condition, it is uncertain how quickly new funds to improve Native health care will emerge.

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