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Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Improve Access to Healthcare for Native American Communities

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

In an effort to improve access to quality medical care for nearly two million American Indians and Alaska Natives, U.S. Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), Dale E. Kildee (D-MI), Don Young (R-AK) and Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) today introduced long-overdue legislation to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (IHCIA) - the cornerstone federal law that directs the delivery of health services to these communities.

"The unmet health needs of American Indians and Alaskan Natives are alarmingly severe and grow worse everyday we fail to act on this important issue," said Pallone, Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. "Native Americans have difficulty accessing the simplest of services, such as primary medical care and dental services, due to lengthy wait times, distant locations and transportation challenges. For far too long there has been a growing divide between the healthcare services afforded Native American communities. This legislation is long overdue and is needed to improve access to quality healthcare for American Indians and correct the inequities these communities experience."

"I have pushed for reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act for the last five Congresses, and I will not stop that push until all of those living in Indian Country have access to quality and modernized care," Rahall said. "As Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, I am prepared to hold a hearing on this critical and needed legislation in the near-term, so that we may see through, once and for all, the reauthorization of the basic health services provided under the Act."

"For far too long, access to health care for Native Americans has been grossly inadequate," Kildee said. "The disparity between the health status of Native Americans and the rest of the American population continues to get worse over time, and the need for action could not be clearer. This critical legislation will make great strides to help end this inequality and improve health care for our Native American population."

"I am pleased once again to be joined in the bi-partisan efforts of this legislation," Young said. "American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy that is six years less than the national average and a rate of diabetes that is disproportionately higher than the national average. The priority of this bill is to ensure by 2010, that the health status of American Indians and Alaska Natives is raised to the same level that is set for other Americans. Additionally, Alaska is experiencing a true dental crisis. More than one-third of Alaska Native school children have missed school due to dental pain, and this is unacceptable. This bill will work to try to resolve some of their dental issues. This is a very important piece of legislation, and I look forward to working with my colleagues as we move it forward for the good of American Indians and Alaska Natives."

"I'm pleased to support the reintroduction of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, a collaborative effort of American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country," said Bono Mack. "Action is overdue on this measure and any health care reform efforts in Washington require that our Native communities are also part of the process. I will continue to work with my colleagues to modernize and improve this health care delivery model for future generations."

First enacted in 1976, IHCIA is the primary source of medical care for 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, many of whom live in isolated, sparsely-populated and underserved areas of the country. It was originally enacted based upon findings that the health status of Indian people ranked far below that of the general population.

Subsequent reauthorizations amended the IHCIA to reflect advancements in healthcare delivery, to respond to the desire of tribes for greater program responsibility, and to target the high incidence of certain diseases that have plagued this segment of the American population. Yet, this integral initiative has not been reauthorized in 17 years, despite solid bipartisan congressional support - and was allowed to expire in 2001.

H.R. 2708 will improve the basic framework of the law, through revisions in the following areas:

* Provisions designed to aid in recruitment and retention of medical professionals for Indian health programs;
* Authorization for more efficient and cost-effective methods of health care delivery;
* Greater roles for tribes in health care delivery, including local-priority setting;
* Authorization for a nationally certified Community Health Aide Program to supply medical care in underserved, remote areas;
* Innovative options for funding of the Indian Health Service;
* Consolidation of substance abuse, mental health, and social services programs into a holistic system for behavioral health services; and
* Organizational improvements for the Indian Health Service.

The Indian healthcare network is comprised of reservation and traditional homeland-based hospitals, clinics, school health centers and health stations in very remote areas, and urban Indian health programs in major cities.

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