Indian Health Services in a Crisis, No Help Coming

Lost in much of the debate over repealing ObamaCare is the atrocious state of Indian health care in this nation, care the federal government is required by treaty to provide to Native nations. Two recent articles paint a disturbing picture.

First was a front-page Wall Street Journal story headlined “Federal Care Fails Tribes: U.S. health system for Native Americans is on the brink due to neglect and underfunding,” July 8-9.  (It is behind a paywall.) It starts with a few anecdotes of extreme failures in Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities. (IHS is the federal agency charged with providing medical care to more than 2 million members of Native nations.) In one case, an IHS hospital discharged a 57-year old Pine Ridge man with a bronchitis diagnosis; he died five hours later from heart failure. An IHS hospital in Nebraska called a “Code Blue” when a patient stopped breathing only to find the emergency supply cart was empty.

The story continues:

In some of the nation’s poorest places, the government health service charged with treating Native Americans failed to meet minimum U.S. standards for medical facilities, turned away gravely ill patients, and caused unnecessary deaths, according to federal regulators, agency documents, and interviews.

The reports have led to calls for stronger Congressional oversight, yet it doesn’t appear that help is on the way, according to a July 14 article in Indian Country Today. It recounts an exchange between Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, a member of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and IHS Acting Director Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, Zuni. Tester pressed Weahkee about whether President Trump’s proposed FY2018 budget increases or decreases funding for IHS. Weahkee would not get a direct answer. Tester’s response: “If you guys don’t advocate for a budget how the hell are we supposed to fix it?”

The Indian Country Today story explained that the administration’s proposed budget cuts $300 million from IHS. (According to the IHS website, its FY 2017 budget for health care services was about $6 billion. A $300 million cut would be about 5 percent cut, plus failing to keep up with medical inflation.)

IHS already is in crisis. Combine the proposed IHS budget cuts with proposals to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and it could have “a devastating impact on Indian health,” the story said.

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