When doctors on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana finally accurately diagnosed Lola Kennedy with cancer, she had spent months visiting the urgent care center only to be sent away with diagnoses of things like pneumonia or bronchitis. Her neck was so swollen she couldn’t move her head. As explained in a special report by Tristan Scott of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, even after Kennedy’s neck began to swell, doctors still did not perform a biopsy but gave her pain pills and lemon drops.
Inadequate, under funded healthcare for Native Americans today is a major and growing problem. Across the United States, the health treatment of Native Americans is often neglected, and it is time citizens such as ourselves make our concerns about this matter known to the government. Work on both the preventative end and treatment options is needed, and strides must be made to ensure healthier living conditions for more than a million people right here in America.
Indeed, “there is a serious health care crisis in Indian Country, affecting over four million Native Americans,” the Democratic Policy Committee reported in a 2004 study. “Native Americans born today suffer a disproportionate occurrence of disease and have a life expectancy six years below the U.S. average,” the report continues to say.
“IHS (Indian Health Services), the primary health care provider for more than 1.6 million members of federally recognized tribes nationwide, has gotten almost no additional money from Congress in six years,” Scott continued in the special report.
With conditions of poverty widespread on many reservations (with the county including nearby Pine Ridge reservation being the poorest in the nation), current and historical conditions have had both an impact on the health of Native Americans and the health care services they receive.
With such extreme poverty present on many reservations, many Native Americans suffer the health consequences of such poverty. Houses that were poorly and cheaply constructed by the government on reservations such as Pine Ridge are prone to dangerous black mold, and cramped quarters only contribute to such conditions. Similarly, as many have noted, adequate places to get food seem to be lacking in many reservations and thus many individuals and families are forced to shop at small convenience or gas station stores where the food is certainly not nutritious, which could be a reason for the high level of diabetes found among reservations residents.
Add these current conditions to a long history of “repression, intergenerational anger and intergenerational grief… disenfranchisement, the tradition of extermination, the broken treaties, the forced marches of the 18th and 19th centuries” as Levanne R. Hendrix in a report for Stanford University notes, and the problem of inadequately-run and funded health care options makes issues even worse.
As mentioned by Scott, a 2004 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled “Broken Promises: Evaluating the Native American Health Care System” decries the current situation of health care on reservations, citing lack of federal funding as a source of the inadequacy. Indeed, many of the hospitals and clinics on the reservations (such as the Blackfeet one examined by Scott) refer patients off the reservation or reject to treat non-life-threatening conditions. Such “rationing” of health care results in very inadequate treatment and (as in the case of Kennedy) many delayed or missed diagnosis that could lead to serious health consequences, or as the HIS suggests, a higher death rate for Native Americans.
Given the legacy of discrimination and the sad history of broken promises experienced by Native American communities in this country, fixing the widespread problems of health care (and working to eliminate the root cause of extreme poverty as well) seems an important step. While discrimination and wrongs of the past can never be redressed, funding positive programs that might help increase the well being of reservation residents seems the least the federal government can do, and citizens such as ourselves should press our representatives to take such action.