Indian Health Care Improvement Act introduced in Congress

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, introduced the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization and Extension Act of 2009 (IHCIA) in the U.S. Senate last Thursday to improve health care for 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country.

The legislation, originally authorized in 1976 and last reauthorized in 1992, provides health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives to help fulfill the U.S. Government's treaty and trust responsibilities to Native Americans.

The federal government has treaty obligations to provide health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives, but Dorgan noted Indian health care programs haven't been updated in over ten years and have been chronically underfunded for decades. This legislation would add standards to ensure the modernization of Native health care.

Fifteen bipartisan co-sponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), joined Dorgan in offering the bill.

"Indian health care programs - both the health services we provide and the way we provide them - urgently need to be updated," Dorgan said. "This legislation will modernize Indian health care programs and provide innovative ways to increase access to health care services for millions of American Indian and Alaska Native families."

"This bipartisan bill will go a long way toward improving health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives around the country and in Nevada," Reid said. "I look forward to working with Senator Dorgan and my colleagues in the Senate to expand services for behavioral needs and improve access to health care services by reauthorizing this critically important health legislation."

"I am honored to join Chairman Dorgan in re-introducing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "It has been nearly 20 years since Congress last reauthorized the Act. Our First Americans suffer the highest mortality rates from diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide. Indian Country has waited far too long for a bill to arrive at the President's desk. We have failed our trust responsibility for far too long. Let's embark on a new course to make America's Native people the healthiest people in the world."

Navajo Nation Division of Health Director Anslem Roanhorse Jr. stated, "It has been a long wait for Indian health care reauthorization. [We are] in the process of further review of the legislation introduced ... to be sure the interests of the Navajo Nation are incorporated. The Nation will continue to advocate for Navajo's interests, including health facilities construction and increased resources for medical staff to provide much needed health care services to the Navajo people."

In short, the IHCIA would:

• Permanently re-authorize all current Indian health care programs;

• Authorize programs to increase the recruitment and retention of health care professionals, such as updates to the scholarship program, demonstration programs which promote new, innovative models of health care, to improve access to health care for Indians and Alaska Natives;

• Authorize long-term care, including home health care, assisted living, and community based care. Current law provides for none of these forms of long-term care;

• Establish mental and behavioral health programs beyond alcohol and substance abuse, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and child sexual abuse and domestic violence prevention programs;

• Establish demonstration projects that provide incentives to use innovative facility construction methods, such as modular component construction and mobile health stations, to save money and improve access to health care services;

• Require that the IHS budget account for medical inflation rates and population growth, in order to combat the dramatic underfunding of the Indian health system.

In June, Representative Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) introduced H.R. 2708, the House version of the bill to amend and reauthorize the IHCIA. The bill remains in several House Committees for consideration.

In addition to Dorgan, Reid and Murkowski, original co-sponsors include: Senators Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Tester (D-Mont.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Roland Burris (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.).

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