Letter to the editor: Health care lacking in tribal jails

To the editor:

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

That line is from a speech that President Kennedy was set to deliver in Dallas on the evening of November 22, 1963. Unfortunately, history changed that day so the speech was never given.

A lot has changed since that time when Federal Indian Policy was a concerted effort to terminate the federal government’s trust responsibility to Indian people. Now, under Self Determination, Indian people themselves ensure that the federal government maintains its historic obligation to protect Indian people.

This past June the Navajo Nation Council did just that.

We on the Council did not know much about tribal correctional healthcare back in 2013 when a brand new jail opened in Tuba City. We didn’t know that there are currently no medical staff in any tribal jails in the United States because the Bureau on Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service have historically turned a blind eye to this issue. We didn’t know that neither agency has ever included a line item in its budget for correctional healthcare.

We also learned that within months of its grand opening, the new jail at Tuba City had a tuberculosis outbreak among inmates and staff because there is no medical screening inside the jail.

Since then, the 23rd Navajo Nation Council has learned a lot about how this issue impacts us all. On June 23, 2016 we passed two resolutions to improve tribal correctional healthcare not only on the Navajo Nation but throughout Indian Country:

We made a formal request to Congress that it amend federal law so that tribal hospitals can be reimbursed for providing medical care to inmates, a cost currently paid by shifting resources away from other patients.

We also made a formal request that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Public Health Service join forces to get doctors and nurses assigned to tribal jails like they are already assigned to Federal Bureau of Prison facilities.

Indeed, leadership and learning are indispensable to each other. Thanks to Navajo leadership, we are changing history. This issue is now finally out in the open and beginning to be understood.

It is up to us to teach decision makers in Washington, DC that they must protect the health of all Indian people everywhere.

Lynette Bonar, RN,MBA, BNS Chief Executive Officer Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation Honorable Otto Tso, 23rd Navajo Nation Council Delegate

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