WASHINGTON – Congress is expected to adjourn in December without sending a wide-ranging Indian health bill to President Bush, leaving Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan and American Indian leaders to look to a new president for support.
Barack Obama campaigned in Indian Country more than any presidential candidate before him — mostly during primary season in an attempt to win states with high Indian populations, including North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
“I want you to know that I will never forget you,” Obama said told Montana’s Crow reservation in May, where he was given an honorary Indian name. “You will be on my mind every day that I am in the White House.”
On the campaign trail, Obama said he supported more funding for the Indian Health Service and better services at IHS clinics. He has also promised to create a new White House position to oversee Indian affairs, which would be a first.
Dorgan said he believes Obama will be “a much more aggressive advocate” for the nation’s Indian communities.
The North Dakota Democrat hopes the Indian health legislation passed by the Senate earlier this year will pave the way for similar legislation in the next Congress.
The legislation would authorize spending about $35 billion for American Indian health care programs over the next 10 years. It would give Indians better access to health care services, including screening and mental health programs.
It would boost programs at the federally funded IHS, prompt new construction and modernization of reservation health clinics and attempt to recruit more Indians into health professions. It also would increase tribal access to Medicare and Medicaid.
Dorgan attributed the bill’s failure to the dispute over abortion. He said its passage through the House was complicated by an amendment added by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that would bar any money authorized in the legislation from being used for abortions.
“We just have to get this done,” Dorgan said. “It’s pathetic that this government has made promises of health care and not delivered.”
American Indians suffer much higher death rates from disease than the rest of the country. Alcoholism, drug use, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and suicide rates are especially high.
Dorgan said he already has talked to former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, who is Obama’s choice to head the federal Health and Human Services Department. Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, was active in Indian issues when he was in Congress.
Jacqueline Johnson, the director of the National Congress of American Indians, says her group will push for the Indian health bill in the next Congress.
“It would be a shame if Congress didn’t do something, given that we have the worst health care demographics in the country,” she said.
Johnson said she hopes Obama’s White House liaison for Indian affairs is a person who can help tribes work with various agencies and communicate more closely with the nation’s leaders.
“The president sets the tone,” Johnson said. “Having a president start (paying attention to Indian issues) earlier in his term gives him an opportunity to accomplish so much.”
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