Annual Meeting

Protect Indian Health Service from budget fights, ABA House urges; 'health care is a right, not a privilege'

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Government shutdowns shouldn’t affect whether members of federally recognized American Indian tribes can see—or pay—their doctors, the House of Delegates declared Tuesday at the 2019 ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

“Every Native American—and the operative word is every ‘American,’ because Native Americans are Americans—deserves access to health care,” said ABA Secretary Mary Smith, who moved the resolution in the House. “Because health care is a right, not a privilege, I urge adoption of Resolution 115A.”

Smith acknowledged that it’s unusual for an ABA secretary to move a resolution in the House but explained that the resolution is personal for her. Smith was once CEO of the Indian Health Service, the agency whose financial stability the resolution seeks to ensure. She’s also an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, and she cited the experience of her grandmother, who lost six of her 16 children before they turned 3 because of poor health care in her small town on the Oklahoma-Arkansas border.

Smith noted that the Indian Health Service provides direct health care services to about 2 million people, as part of the federal government’s trust relationship with tribes and some of the treaties between them. But its services were interrupted by the 35-day government shutdown of 2018-19, with some medical staff working without pay and others not coming to work. Patients with surgical complications or long-term needs simply did without.

Smith pointed out that this didn’t happen to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which since 2010 has appropriated funding a year in advance to insulate it from this problem.

“This shutdown [of 2018-2019] stopped all funding for health services to the over 2 million Native Americans that the Indian Health Service serves,” she said. “Yes, you heard me right: All funding stopped. Poof. Gone.”

Supporters waived their right to speak, and there were no speakers in opposition. The resolution passed easily.

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