Original URL: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/1018indian18.html

Civil rights panel looks at Indian health care
Associated Press
Oct. 18, 2003
Patricia L. Garcia

ALBUQUERQUE -Poverty, inadequate education, cultural and language barriers and geographic distances all factor into health care disparities faced by American Indians, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was told Friday.

The commission heard suggestions from tribal leaders and health care advocates at a daylong hearing in Albuquerque about how health care services for Indians can be improved. The hearing comes as lawmakers are looking to review and expand the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The act, which expires this year, guides federal health and education spending for Indians.

"These discussions should enlighten and provide more information to the Congress as it considers whether or not, one, it wants to pass this legislation, and two, what adjustments in it (Congress) should make," Commission Chairwoman Mary Frances Berry said.

Although medical care and public health efforts, such as mass vaccinations and sanitation facilities, have increased in the past several years, Indians still face higher rates of cardiovascular disease, alcoholism, oral diseases and one type of diabetes than the general population.

What's distressing is that those diseases are preventable, said Jon Perez, director of the Indian Health Service's Division of Behavioral Health.

According to commission estimates, the per capita health expenditure for all Americans will be $5,775 this year. The Indian Health Service spends about $1,600 per person, and on the Navajo Reservation, that amount is less than $800 per person.

Charles Grim, Indian Health Service director, said Indian health care facilities lack funding and adequate staff.

He said health care can be improved through recruitment and retainment programs for medical professionals, as well as cultural training for health care providers. Scholarships, loan repayments and other incentives would help retain specialists, he said.

Tribal leaders told the commission the IHS does not provide enough specialized treatment or sufficient services. They also said Indian health care facilities are overcrowded and underfunded. "I have high hopes that as a result of trying to put the spotlight more on these issues that the Congress can benefit from the discussions as they pass legislation, and that ultimately these programs will benefit," Berry said.