BILLINGS, Mont. - Misdiagnosed illnesses, denied payments and a shortage of trained medical personnel in government-run clinics are wrecking the federal health care system for Native Americans, tribal leaders said today as they pressed officials to overhaul a system beset with problems.
With the head of the Indian Health Service listening on, representatives of seven Montana and Wyoming reservations delivered a litany of health care woes suffered by their members during a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing in Billings.
They described an agency compromised by a bloated bureaucracy and unable to fulfill its core duty to provide health care for more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
"All too often, tribal members complain of ailments but get sent home from the Indian Health Service with cough medicine or pain killers. Later we learn the situation is much more serious, like cancer," said A.T. "Rusty" Stafne, chairman of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of northeast Montana's Fort Peck Indian Reservation.
"We have lost fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and future leaders because they were unable to get the health care they need," he said.
Indian Health Service acting director Yvette Roubideaux said in response that changes are underway, including reforms meant to streamline the bureaucratic hurdles faced by patients. But she acknowledged greater efforts were needed at the local level, and that more money will be required than the $4.4 billion the federal agency receives annually.
"I've never thought you could fix the Indian Health Service in a day or overnight," Roubideaux said.
The U.S. government provides health care to American Indians and Alaska Natives as part of its trust responsibility to tribes that gave up their land when the United States was being formed.