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Urban American Indian communities may soon get better access to healthcare

Posted at 2:15 PM, Aug 29, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — Research found Native Americans are living shorter lives because of the pandemic. Lower quality care and less access to care cut an average of four years off the lives of American Indian populations across the country, but there’s work happening right now to stop that trend.

It’s called the Urban Indian Health Confer Act. What it does is simple: it takes away red tape and gives better health care access to those who desperately need it.

Dr. Patrick Rock has dedicated his life to honoring two things: his roots and his tribal brothers and sisters.

“We, of course, go into this type of work to improve the health of people, and it feels like it's an uphill battle,” he said.

Dr. Rock has spent 25 years as a family doctor in Minneapolis and is also the CEO of the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis. He’s found American Indian healthcare in the city is often tougher than healthcare on the reservation.

“Urban Indian health has always been an afterthought,” said Rock. “Eighty percent of Native people live in urban centers, so off of tribal lands, off a reservation, and through the Indian Health Service, unfortunately, there's only about 1% of the total budget is proportioned to the urban programs across the United States.”

That means fewer doctors and clinics, but during the pandemic, it meant less access to the vaccine.

“We saw grave delays in vaccines in a population that needed it the most, and so it was very disappointing, devastating, and it probably cost lives needlessly. We don't want bureaucracy to get in the way of healthcare delivery,” said Meredith Raimondi of the National Council of Urban Indian Health.

Raimondi is now part of a coalition fighting for better healthcare policy alongside Dr. Rock. They’re supporting legislation introduced by Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) called the Urban Indian Health Confer Act. The legislation is working its way through Congress now, and it has bipartisan support.

Traditionally, the federal government communicates with the Indian Health Service only, and then, the Indian Health Service delivers all communication, resources, and funding to urban Indian health programs.

This legislation would open the chain of communication and require the federal government to directly communicate with urban Native American health. That means sending healthcare supplies and funding directly to urban programs that need it.

“I firmly believe that Native people living in urban areas deserve an active voice in the policies that affect them,” said Sen. Smith. “I introduced the bipartisan Urban Indian Health Confer Act to help facilitate the open and free exchange of information and opinions between federal agencies and urban Indian organizations. It is an important step towards creating parity within the Indian Health System.”

“The entirety of the federal government is going to require itself to talk with Urban Indian Health, and has a lot of, I think, potential as far as lifesaving, but also, I think things such as improving quality of health care as well as saving health care dollars and making the system much more efficient,” said Rock.

“Lives are at stake, and it is the federal government's trust responsibility to provide health care services,” said Raimondi. “And it's not just to provide substandard health care services. It actually is to provide the highest health care service available.”

If this legislation passes, it may take years to see change in the urban American Indian healthcare system, but it’s a big step toward equity and preserving the rich tribal history that exists all around us.