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Chicago's American Indian Health Services needs federal legisation to continue care

by Breeanna Hare
Dec 11, 2008

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 Breeanna Hare/Medill News

Kennith Scott, of the Choctaw tribe, is hard at work in Chicago trying to get the Indian Health Care Improvement Act passed. Extension of the act, which expires Jan. 1, is needed to continue free care at Chicago's American Indian Health Services where Scott serves as executive director. Scott said he is hopeful that the new administration will support the effort.

If Native American advocate Kennith Scott could time travel back to 1978, he would. It was an era when he was just starting to fight for better Native American health care and the efforts won services for thousands of people who had left reservation to live in cities.

Now, Congress has failed to extend the Indian American Health Care Act, which expires Jan. 1 and provides funding for urban Native Americans. Without action by Congress in spring, Chicago's American Indian Health Services may have to cut more services or even close, according to Scott, executive director. The center is the only one of its kind in the city.

“The economy’s changed,” said Scott, a member of the Choctaw tribe. And the continuing failure of Congress to extend the federal Indian Health Care Improvement Act only adds to the financial problems faced by the center and Native Americans.

Early this year, President Bush threatened to veto the act, which would have extended federal funding for urban Native American health care centers for the next nine years. Bush never got the chance, however, as the act failed in the U.S. House of Representatives in September after approval in the Senate. 

“It became a tug of war between the right-to-life and the right-to-choose,” Scott said, since there was a proposed amendment to allow Native American health services to perform abortions with the federally provided funding.

That amendment may be deleted from reworked legislative proposals next year, according to the Web site National Council of Urban Indian Health. 

Funding has already dropped due to budget cuts. For Scott, that means another year without a full medical staff and another year without the funding to re-open the dental center, which closed in 2006 due to lack of resources. He is already trying to counteract the effects of a $200,000 cut into his $1 million budget for this fiscal year.

“What we’re seeing right now is that we don’t have the money to support free medication,” Scott said. “And when I say free medication, I mean we would pay for it so the patients don’t have to. Now we don’t have that. We’re running into a hole. Now, with our laboratory exams, we can’t pay for that either. We can’t meet the needs of the people coming in here.”

In 2009, the work starts over for Scott and other advocates to pass the legislation. 

“We need to put [the act] back on the floor, we need to get congressional constituency to back it and we need to re-introduce it to both parties,” he said.

As to whether or not the change of administration will help his cause, Scott is hopeful.

“We’re thinking that President Obama is going to change things," he said. "We’re looking to move our program forward no matter what.”