Native Health Underfunded and Promises Unfulfilled: The Importance of Investing in the Indian Health Service

“If the Indian Health Service was fully funded, we would be able to implement some of the programs we can’t currently offer. And I believe there would be a direct correlation between increased funding and improved health status for Native people.” –Dr. Donna Polk-Primm, CEO, Nebraska Urban Indian Health Coalition

The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations and partners in the Health Rights Organizing Project recently released a new report, Native Health Underfunded and Promises Unfulfilled: The Importance of Investing in the Indian Health Service. The report details the difficulties clinics and hospitals within the Indian health system face when trying to provide quality health care with limited resources.

Congress included the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in the federal health reform bill passed in March, authorizing many improvements in the Indian health system–improvements that Native communities have been awaiting for over a decade. However, the bill did not set aside funding for the programs. Increased funding is desperately needed for the health of Native people. Without adequate resources Native communities will never be able to address the crisis of health disparities facing their communities.

The underfunding of Indian Health Service has deadly consequences:

  • The GAO has identified average wait times of up to six months at some facilities for primary care services, including women’s health and general physicals.
  • The Contract Health Services – which contracts out services that IHS-funded facilities cannot provide directly – is so short of money that less than half of Catastrophic Health Emergency Cases are funded.
  • Urban Indian Health organizations receive just one percent of the IHS budget, even though 67 percent of Native people live in urban areas.

Native Health Underfunded and Promises Unfulfilled includes interviews with 14 Indian health system administrators and providers who describe their struggles to provide quality care given the drastic lack of resources. They mention long wait times for care, short-staffing, and being unable to provide services their patients need.

What’s obvious from the interviews is that the clinics do the best they can with the resources they have. The reality, however, is that it takes money to run a clinic and provide health care to people. If the money’s not there, there are real people – including children and elders – that suffer.

It’s imperative that Congress act quickly to fulfill their obligation for health care for all Native people and bring the Indian Health Service closer to full funding. The changes Congress made for Indian health are great and very necessary. But those changes don’t mean anything without the dollars to implement them.

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