Official: Lack of funding harms Indian health

August 12, 2011 - 6:29 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Native Americans aren't getting the health care they need because services for them are vastly underfunded, the director of the federal Indian Health Service said Friday.

Yvette Roubideaux told a gathering of American Indian doctors in Portland that her agency is still underfunded despite significant gains made in recent years.

"It's really clear that the health disparities, the lack of health care providers, the lack of updated facilities, the delays in providing care — all of those seem to fundamentally result from the lack of resources that we have," Roubideaux said in an address to the annual conference of the Association of American Indian Physicians.

The federal government spends more per-capita on health care for prisoners than for Native Americans who get their care from the Indian Health Service, she said.

When compared with the population as a whole, Indians are twice as likely to die from suicide, three times more likely to die from diabetes-related complications and six times more likely to die from alcohol abuse, according to IHS statistics.

Roubideaux said her agency has been fortunate to avoid budget cuts so far and actually saw its budget increase significantly in 2010. But deficit-reduction negotiations could erode some of those gains, she said.

Noting that the federal health care overhaul will increase health options for Indians, Roubideaux said she's focused on improving customer service and quality of care in the IHS so patients won't look elsewhere for care. Improving the agency's management can increase the outcomes even without full funding, she said.

"If we wait for the funding to come and magically make everything better, we're going to be waiting a long time," Roubideaux said.

Jeremy Lazarus, president-elect of the American Medical Association, told the conference that more should be done to help Native Americans become doctors, including scholarship programs to help them afford medical school and improve accommodations to allow Indian doctors to incorporate traditional healing in their practices.

The new federal health care overhaul, known officially as the Affordable Care Act but dubbed "Obamacare" by opponents, isn't perfect, Lazarus said, but it goes a long way toward improving access to health care and decreasing disparities between care for white and minority patients.

"Despite all that you might hear and all the fury around reform ... there is a lot for America's patients to like from all walks of life about the Affordable Care Act," Lazarus said.