WASHINGTON — The Senate is expected to begin its 2008 session this week with work on legislation to modernize Indian health care, and Sen. Tom Coburn said he plans to make it a battle.
Some lawmakers and Indian tribes have been pushing for years to pass a bill renewing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but have run into numerous obstacles.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, said last week, "it's long past the time this (bill) should have been done.”
Coburn, R-Muskogee, a physician, has been critical of the overall quality of service provided by the Indian Health Service and is among the senators who have blocked consideration of the legislation.
But he has pledged not to hold it up this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid promised Dorgan, the author, that it would be the first legislation scheduled when the Senate returns to work on Tuesday.
Coburn said in an interview last week he plans to offer several amendments aimed at improving the bill but he hasn't had a chance to finalize them.
"We're going to have a pretty good battle on Indian health care,” he said, adding, "I'll lose.”
Regarding the circumstances of the Indian Health Service, Coburn said, "I see inefficiency, I see poor outcomes, I see less than the standard of care.
"If we're promising health care to Native Americans, we should deliver it.”
Care called ‘second-rate'
The Indian Health Service is responsible for providing care to 1.8 million American Indians and Alaska natives in 35 states.
The agency is divided into 12 area offices; the largest is the Oklahoma City area office, which has responsibility for about 280,000 American Indians in Oklahoma and parts of Kansas and Texas. The Oklahoma City region includes seven Indian hospitals and 40 outpatient health centers. Some are run by the agency, while others are run by tribes with IHS funding.
Last year, the health service opened a new center in Clinton and completed work on a major addition to the Indian hospital in Lawton.
Coburn said the care in Oklahoma is probably better than in other, more remote areas where it is difficult to attract trained doctors and nurses. But he said competition needs to be introduced where feasible so Indians can choose where they want to get their care.
He said he didn't want Congress to pass a bill that continues providing "second-rate” health care while lawmakers claim they are helping.
Dorgan on Friday said he had talked to Coburn numerous times about the need to reform the Indian Health Service.
Dorgan said he agrees that's necessary and that he would support Coburn's efforts.