Obama's Health Care Law Offers Certainty for Native Americans

Aug 8, 2012

Credit Flickr: comedynose

The Affordable Care Act takes another stab at fixing healthcare for all Americans.  But, one change buried deep in the hundreds of pages of sections and subtitles could make a big difference for one specific group of Oklahomans.

“I’m David Touhty, I’m the Chief Development officer with the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act is going to help us expand and really bring health care into the 21st century."

The Indian Health Care Improvement….Oh that’s a mouthful…lets just say, “The Act”, is like health care reform for Native Americans but until recently it was only temporary. Kevin Meeks is with Oklahoma City Indian Health Services.

“The Indian Health Care Improvement Act was enacted into law in 1976 based upon findings that the health status of Indians ranked far below that of the general population. It’s been reauthorized four times and the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was permanently reauthorized with the passage of the Affordable Care Act.”

What’s the big deal here? What does this reauthorization change?

“A lot of the provisions in it expired this reauthorization makes it permanent and so you will see an expansion of services allowing Indian Health Care to apply for more grants and possibly receive more funding.”

Now the Act is back there’s a chance facilities like the clinic will get more money to fund treatments for substance abuse, provide services like hospice care and prevent domestic abuse. But, the main focus is on other issues. First overcrowding….

“We have 16,000 patients, which is really about 1/3 of the population in Oklahoma City. This is the only health care in the Oklahoma City metro area. That’s why the urban Indian population kind of fell through the cracks.”

Leonard Harjo, Chief of the Seminole nation says there’s a chance to fill in those cracks.

“One of the main benefits of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act is that it provides for joint venture programs with tribes, if we build a facility, the Indian Health Services will seek funding from Congress.”

Chief Harjo says, some of these facilities have already been built in Eastern Oklahoma, but that won’t happen everywhere. Oklahoma City might have to find a more temporary fix.

“I think we may create some satellite clinics here in Oklahoma City. We’ve always talked about access and that seems to be one of the biggest problems in health care. Not just for us but nationwide is just access to health care.”

A hospital or even more clinics would be a dream come true but, clinic representative Toughty takes what he can get. He believes the Act will get the Clinic better funding for another area of care.

“The Indian Health Care Improvement Act helps focus on health promotion and disease prevention. Prevention is a very important part of health care now, and its being used by everyone, especially us.”

Prevention of what?

“Indians are five times more likely to die from alcoholism, even twice as likely to die from diabetes complications and American Indian youth are twice as likely to commit suicide.”

No one’s born with diabetes, and you can’t break a drinking habit in a snap, so how does the clinic’s prevention plan work? Cynthia Caldeo says, they use their funding to stop these illnesses at the source.

“We do really a lot of things for kids, Diabetes prevention camp teaching them about tobacco, nutrition, physical activity, dental, all kinds of different educations that we do with them.”

“So the Act kind of broadened the scope. Changing behaviors is very difficult but we feel that if you start early enough children will learn to make healthier choices.”