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Federal budget cuts could shutter Native American health program

by Hilary Powell
Jan 30, 2008

When Joan Ornelas worked as a waitress in downtown Chicago, she serviced others attentively and received attentive health care from a Native American center that could be cut. 

“I had two children and, as a waitress, you don’t have health insurance. But I had to go somewhere” she said.

The 65-year-old Portage Park resident turned to the American Indian Health Services of Chicago as she raised her kids. The non-profit organization provides healthcare services to low-income or uninsured patients and Ornelas continues to go there.

But she and several hundred other patients could soon be without health care services, since President Bush’s $3.1-trillion-dollar proposed budget, released earlier this week, recommends cutting the funds that support urban clinics under the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The Chicago health service estimates that about two-thirds of its patients are Native Americans, though the center serves others as well.

“We have a budget of upwards of $1 million,” said Kennith Scott, executive director of the American Indian Health Services of Chicago. “One hundred percent of our funding comes from (the feds). Sure, we may get a $2,000 or $3,000 donation, but they don’t fund the organization.”

The proposed cuts could close 36 programs in urban areas that make health services more accessible to Native Americans. Congress has rescued the programs from previous proposed budget cuts and Native American groups are gearing up to win support once again.

Geoffrey Roth, executive director of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, said Native Americans living in urban areas are especially vulnerable to disease and illness because they aren't supported by the Indian Health Service, a tribal-based health provider for those living on reservations.

That means tribe members living in or near cities would become ineligible for or unable to reach affordable health services, he said.

For more than two years, Roth has advocated a comprehensive federal health care program for Native Americans no matter where they live, he said.

“As part of the treaty my forefather’s signed we were guaranteed the right to the social service of health care in return for land (cities) are built upon,” he said.

The proposed cuts to the Indian Health Service budget remove all funding for the Urban Indian Health Program that includes the Chicago center.

Scott said the center is the only urban public health program for Native Americans in Illinois and serves several hundred people annually.

“Without that money, we’d be shut down," Scott said. The people who need help would be unable to find it in another place. "And so we have to assume they wouldn’t be helped at all,” he said.

In a statement released Monday, officials at the National Council of Urban Indian Health said Bush's record budget was met with “mock surprise,” because the urban program funding has been zeroed out for three consecutive years.

In January, President Bush threatened to veto a bill to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act through 2017.

Scott said his organization is hard at work sending letters to legislators, asking them to support restoring funding for the act.

Like an estimated one-quarter or urban Native American populations, Ornelas periodically migrates back to a tribal health facility to obtain health care.

As a member of a federally recognized Native American Indian tribe, she’s entitled to health care offered by the Indian Health Service.

Ornelas said she had better health care options during the year she spent with the Odawa Tribe in Michigan than during more than 10 years of living in Chicago.

“They check your blood pressure and sugar levels, and a lot of natives have diabetes,” she said. “They even help you watch what you eat.”

Now Ornelas attends the free senior luncheon offered  bi-weekly at the American Indian Center of Chicago in Uptown.

At the center, Chicago resident Bernadette Simon, 47, plops down to have her blood pressure taken. As the machine’s palpitations squeeze tighter around her arm, she prepares to hear what she already knows.

“I’ve known for 10 years that I have high blood pressure,” Simon said. “I come here because it’s free and it’s been a relief to have some kind of treatment.”

The center does what it can to keep Native Americans in the area aware of health concerns and healthy living practices. At each luncheon, wellness director Sally Wagoner runs basic health screenings for blood pressure and glucose levels. There’s also a registered dietitian to counsel on diet and nutrition.

Roth said makeshift health initiatives are springing up in community centers across the country because the Indian Health Service, which focuses mainly on rural areas, already is so overworked and under-funded.

“I get at least one call a month from a city or government official asking me how they can establish an urban Indian health program,” he said.

Kat Strangeman, a social worker with the American Indian Center of Chicago, says it’s more than the the low cost that keeps local natives coming back to the area health services.

“Natives are looking for a culturally responsive way to see their doctors,” she said.