Tester: Senate has ‘historic opportunity’ to revamp Indian health care

Indian Health Care Improvement Act hasn’t been updated in 15 years

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Senator Jon Tester today told his colleagues they have an "historic opportunity" to improve the lives of millions of Americans by updating the Indian Health Care Improvement Act for the first time in 15 years.

Tester explained his support for reauthorizing this important piece of legislation during a speech today on the Senate floor.  He said health care is the number one concern when he hears from tribal members during his visits to Montana's reservations.

Tester is a member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which drafted the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.  Despite several efforts in recent years, this act hasn't been updated since 1992, and it expired in 2000.  Congress has continued funding Indian health care piecemeal since then.

Currently the Indian Health Service provides only 55% of the necessary funding for participants in the system.

Reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act will specifically:

  • Modernize and improve health care services for American Indians.
  • Authorize programs to address mental and behaviorial health care of American Indians.
  • Promote disease prevention, substance abuse and addiction treatment, and better physical health in Indian Country.
  • Update Medicare and Medicaid to allow eligible American Indians to fully participate in the programs.

Tester noted that providing access to quality health care to American Indians is not only a duty that stems from treaties with the tribes signed by the United   States in exchange for land, it also cuts health care costs in the long run.

"The longer we wait, the worse the problem becomes," Tester said on the Senate floor.  "The longer we wait, the more expensive this problem becomes… Make no mistake about it, we will all pay for the health care of our citizens.  But we will pay a premium if we choose not to do the right thing today and fully fund a program that is about lifelong health."

Also during his speech Tester said on average, American Indians don't live as long as non-Indians.  That's due to a significantly disproportionate disease rate in Indian Country.

On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment offered by Tester encouraging federal law enforcement agencies to work more closely with tribal governments in fighting meth abuse in Indian Country.

Tester has fought for better Indian health care long before taking office.  Over the last year, he introduced legislation to encourage more American Indians to pursue careers in health care at tribal colleges and universities.  Last August, Tester also hosted an Indian health care field hearing in Crow Agency with the Chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.