WASHINGTON — During a conference call held with the press on Sept. 28, Kerry-Edwards campaign officials outlined the candidates’ comprehensive plan on Native American health.
The Democratic team’s National Policy Director Sarah Bianchi, along with Mary Smith, advisor on Native American Outreach, participated in the tele-conference.
In a press release issued on the day of the conference call, John Kerry pledged to address what he described as a Native American health crisis.
“George Bush’s administration has failed to address the health care crisis facing Native Americans,” Kerry said. “While Bush’s budget plan cuts funding for important minority health programs, John Edwards and I have a plan to ensure that all Native Americans, whether they live on reservations or in urban areas, have access to quality, affordable health care.”
Bianchi stressed the magnitude of tribal health issues.
“This is such an important issue—health care for the Native American community,” she said. “We believe it’s one of the biggest differences between George Bush and John Kerry. We’ve seen health care prices rising; more people fall into the ranks of the uninsured. More than one in four Native Americans are uninsured, a number higher than any other racial group aside from Hispanics. The average life expectancy for Native Americans is five years less than the national average.”
Further, Bianchi pointed out that Native Americans who are insured have access to a lower quality of health care when they have access at all.
“Bush’s 2005 budget includes a proposed $16 billion cut in Medicaid funding over the next 10 years,” Bianchi said.
This proposal would see cuts in funding from the Office of Minority Health and the Center for Disease Control. More disturbing, Bianchi said, was the Bush administration’s actions to mislead Americans about their health care. She referred to a report on minority health she said was alterred to hide the fact that minorities receive worse health care than other Americans.
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According to the above cited press release, this report was never published.
“In its place, Bush administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services published a replacement report that asserted that claims of minority groups receiving worse care than whites were untrue,” the release asserts.
“Words were edited out, such as ‘disparity’ and ‘inequality.’ They were caught doing that because someone had seen an earlier draft of the report,” Bianchi said. “The Bush administration is trying to pretend there is no problem. John Kerry understands that there is a problem.”
Smith, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, alluded to historical precedent.
“All too often the Native American has not been included in important initiatives,” Smith said. “John Kerry and John Edwards know too well the health care crisis facing Native Americans today and have a plan to address the horrible disparity there.”
Native Americans are 770 percent more likely to die from alcoholism, 650 percent more likely to die from tuberculosis, 420 percent more likely to die from diabetes and 52 percent more likely to die from pneumonia or influenza than the rest of the American population, Smith said.
“Part of Kerry’s plan includes reauthorization if the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, while supporting meaningful increases for the Indian Health Service,” Smith said. “Historically federal prisoners receive double what IHS receives per person (more than $3,800 for health care for each prisoner as opposed to approximately $2,000 for IHS medical care per person) and we know that even with health insurance, Native Americans are not guaranteed good health care.”
The Kerry-Edwards plan will include the Native American population as an important part of a five-pronged plan for good national health care. These components will increase access to health care coverage; ensure access to culturally and linguistically appropriate health care; diversify the health workforce; collect, analyze and report health data by race, ethnicity and primary language and finally, an investment in health promotion and disease prevention for minority communities.
Although neither Bianchi nor Smith could offer a specific dollar amount of what IHS could expect to receive, Smith said that Kerry’s plan to inject $650 billion dollars into national health care would leave room for a lot of different things—including better health care for Native Americans.
“Kerry has been the only one who has recognized the disparity in the health care afforded Native Americans,” Smith said. “He’s been on public record in Arizona and New Mexico.”
In response to a question regarding high prescription drug costs, which also affect health care for Native Americans, Bianchi assured participants that Kerry has addressed many of these issues.
“Kerry proposes a $25 billion dollar injection, a state and local fund to reimburse states and help them close their deficits so we can avoid the cuts we’ve seen across the board. This is set up so that funding will go to local communities and reservations to help them close their gaps,” Bianchi said.
In response to a question regarding environmental hazards as a contributing factor to Native American health issues, Smith said that Kerry has worked towards cleanup of environmental sites. Further she said the candidate will abolish the military exemption where their activities have proven to cause health and environmental problems.
According to Smith, Kerry recognizes that each community has unique issues. For example, she said African Americans are hit by some diseases while Native Americans are hard hit by diabetes and alcoholism. Smith stressed Kerry’s plan works to address the particular needs of each community.
In response to concern that the Kerry-Edward plan would lack bipartisan support, Smith replied that Kerry would do what he needed to work both sides of the aisle.
“That is not partisan politics,” Smith said. “That’s part of doing what is right.”
Bianchi pointed out that new presidents are normally given their first priority, and for Kerry, that is improved health care. If elected president, she said Kerry would offer an open door [to Native American leaders and lobbyists, for one] for discussions on how to make the program better.
“We designed the overall health care plan as something that could get done in congress,” Smith continued. “When we sat down to design the aspects of this plan, we designed an overall policy that is designed to get business support, both small and large…designed to help state and local communities.
“There has been no issue spoken of more than this one on the campaign trail. If you have a president who takes this issue to the country, he will be very well received. [Policies] are very difficult to get done in Congress if the White House isn’t pushing for it. If you have a president who is talking every day to the country about health care, the Congress will respond.”