Navajo leaders praise passage of Health Care Reform Law

WASHINGTON, D.C. - On March 21, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 219-212 to pass the Patient Protection and Affordable Act (H.R. 3590). Included in the bill was language to permanently reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA), which was last reauthorized nearly 10 years ago. President Obama signed the bill (P.L. 111-148) into law March 23.

In a statement released by the White House, President Obama stated, "I signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health insurance reform bill passed by Congress ... [T]his bill permanently reauthorizes the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which was first approved by Congress in 1976. As a Senator, I co-sponsored this Act back in 2007 because I believe it is unacceptable that Native American communities still face gaping health care disparities. Our responsibility to provide health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives derives from the nation-to-nation relationship between the federal and tribal governments. With this bill, we have taken a critical step in fulfilling that responsibility by modernizing the Indian health care system and improving access to health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives."

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. attended the historic signing, stating "My heart is full of happiness that we have attained this goal to create permanency in providing health care for all our native brothers and sisters. I want to thank our Congressional leaders, the Navajo Division of Health, the Navajo Nation Washington Office, other tribal leaders and organizations and all others involved in the creation and passage of this legislation. It signals a major accomplishment in improving the lives not only for the Navajo people but for all Native Americans."

"I want to thank the Representatives that voted to support Health Care Reform and the IHCIA," said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Thomas Walker Jr. "New Mexico Representatives Ben Luján, Martin Heinrich, and Arizona Representatives Ann Kirkpatrick, Raúl Grijalva, and Ed Pastor, all recognized the need of not just better access to health care for all Americans but also the specific needs of Native Americans."

Walker also acknowledged the work involved in the constant advocacy needed to provide access to health care for the Navajo people. "The new permanency of Indian Health Care is a historic milestone, brought by the efforts over the years by the Navajo Nation Division of Health, the Navajo Nation Council's Health and Social Services Committee, and the Navajo Nation Washington Office. It has been a long haul to get IHCIA to this point and I would also like to thank the other tribes and national native organizations for its efforts in getting the federal government to reaffirm its trust responsibility to its native peoples. It is a good day for Indian Country."

Anslem Roanhorse, Division Director of the Navajo Nation Division of Health said, "The larger bill passing is very exciting but the section containing the IHCIA reauthorization makes it even more special for the nation's tribes who have invested a lot of time working on it. Over the years as each Congress attempted to push forward Indian Health Care reauthorization, the Navajo Nation has made sure services for our people were addressed for each new version of the bill."

Within Title X of the Health Care Bill that contains IHCIA, sections address protections for the priority list for health care facilities, which includes five Navajo area facilities. Additionally, a feasibility study to explore whether the Navajo Nation should be treated and administered as an independent Medicaid entity and provide direct funding was also included.

Other provisions include access to AIDS drug assistance programs; new grants for early prevention programs; and new demonstration programs for rural telehealth.

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 permanent reauthorization of IHCIA will improve health care services for 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country. The last IHCIA extension expired at the end of Fiscal Year 2001. Since then the government still continued to appropriate money yearly for Indian health programs.

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