BILLINGS — The chairman of the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee says he wants the Obama administration to address the "dysfunction" that is hobbling Native American health care and causing rising dissatisfaction over poor and delayed care on reservations.
Chairman Jon Tester has invited tribal leaders from Montana and Wyoming to a Tuesday field hearing in Billings to air grievances about the U.S. Indian Health Service — a $4.4 billion agency that provides health care for 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The agency's director for Montana and Wyoming, Anna Whiting-Sorrell, resigned this month after just over a year on the job, saying her efforts to help Indians were frustrated by the agency's failure to connect with tribes that suffer from high rates of diabetes, substance abuse, heart disease and other illnesses.
"As an Indian woman I will die 20 years younger than a white woman. How can we let that go on?" asked Whiting-Sorrell, who is now in charge of health policy planning for her tribes, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai.
IHS acting Director Yvette Roubideaux is scheduled to testify Tuesday.
"Dr. Roubideaux's going to be there, so there won't be anything lost in translation," Tester told The Associated Press. "I want to make sure we as a committee and the administration hears what those concerns are so they can be addressed. Everybody says, 'We don't have enough money.' But the bottom line is they've got to use the money they've got more effectively."
The Montana Democrat added that Congress has caused further disruption to the agency with last fall's government shutdown and the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. The cuts took $220 million out of the health service's 2013 budget. That resulted in a reduction of 3,000 inpatient hospital admissions and more than 800,000 outpatient visits, according to prior testimony from Roubideaux.
Under treaties with tribes, health care is guaranteed to Native Americans in perpetuity in exchange for the lands they gave up as the United States was formed.
Tester and fellow Montana Democrat, U.S. Sen. John Walsh, on May 2 requested an investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office into the Indian Health Service's area office in Billings. That came after the Crow tribe asked the state's congressional delegation to look into longstanding complaints about the office that oversees health care for more than 70,000 people in Montana and Wyoming.
An IHS spokeswoman said the agency would have no comment ahead of Tuesday's hearing.
Former Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota conducted a similar investigation in 2010. Dorgan found that a "chronic state of crisis" plagued health care services for American Indians. Problems included a lack of providers, hospitals at risk of losing their accreditation, improperly licensed staff and missing or stolen narcotics.
The life expectancy for Native American women in Montana is 62 years, compared to 82 years for white women. Native men have a life expectancy of 56 years, versus 75 years for white men, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Whiting-Sorrell said that given the Indian Health Services' problem-plagued past, the best chance for improvement is to increase tribal involvement in Indian health care.
"Blaming the Indian Health Service, saying there's not enough money, that's been done for 50 years. It's a whole system that has to change," she said.