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Franken, Klobuchar sign onto Indian Health bill

A bill introduced last week would permanently reauthorize all current American Indian health care programs.

The bill, the Indian Health Care Improvement Reauthorization and Extension Act, was introduced by Senate Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and has Sens. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., and Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., as two of 16 co-sponsors.

The measure, they say, will improve health care for 1.9 million American Indians and Alaska natives.

"Indian health care programs -- both the health services we provide and the way we provide them -- urgently need to be updated," Dorgan said. "This legislation will modernize Indian health care programs and provide innovative ways to increase access to health care services for millions of American Indian and Alaska native families."

Co-sponsors include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark.

"Health care programs for American Indians and Alaskan natives have been under funded and neglected for far too long," said Franken, a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "I'm glad that my colleagues from both sides of the aisle could come together to create a bill that will markedly improve the quality of health care for tribes here in Minnesota, and throughout the country."

"It has been nearly 20 years since Congress last reauthorized the act," said Republican Murkowski. "Our First Americans suffer the highest mortality rates from diabetes, tuberculosis, alcoholism and suicide. Indian Country has waited far too long for a bill to arrive at the president's desk. We have failed our trust responsibility for far too long. Let's embark on a new course to make America's native people the healthiest people in the world."

Provisions of the bill include:

- Permanently re-authorize all current Indian health care programs.

- Authorize programs to increase the recruitment and retention of health care professionals, such as updates to the scholarship program, demonstration programs which promote new, innovative models of health care, to improve access to health care for Indians and Alaska natives.

- Authorize long-term care, including home health care, assisted living, and community based care. Current law provides for none of these forms of long-term care.

- Establish mental and behavioral health programs beyond alcohol and substance abuse, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and child sexual abuse and domestic violence prevention programs.

- Establish demonstration projects that provide incentives to use innovative facility construction methods, such as modular component construction and mobile health stations, to save money and improve access to health care services.

- Require that the IHS budget account for medical inflation rates and population growth, in order to combat the dramatic under funding of the Indian health system.

Among other provisions, the bill creates epidemiology centers and an Office of Indian Men's Health to complement the existing Office of Indian Women's Health.

Bemidji is a regional headquarters for the IHS, which operates hospitals at Cass Lake and Red Lake.