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Strengthening Health Care in Indian Country

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently visited leaders and members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona to discuss health care.
HHS Sebelius Sawmill Headstart with Children

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius meets with the children of Sawmill Headstart. (Photo Credit Navajo Nation Press Office)

I recently had the honor of visiting leaders and members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Their hospitality and kindness speak to the best values of the Navajo culture and traditions. And they, like tribes across the country, are critical partners in the Administration’s efforts to promote the health and well-being of all Americans.

At the Sawmill Head Start Program and local Boys and Girls Club, I saw how local educators are helping prepare young American Indian children to succeed in school and pursue their dreams. On a tour of the Navajo Special Diabetes Program for Indians Wellness Center, I saw dedicated caretakers work to prevent and manage a disease that affects too many on and off the reservations. During a visit to a Tribal elder’s home, I gained a greater understanding of ways we can improve living conditions for all families in the Navajo Nation.

And I was especially proud of the great effort by the staff of the Gallup Indian Medical Center, who recently achieved a Level III Trauma Center designation – a first for the Indian Health Service (IHS). The work of the IHS at this facility, and throughout Indian Country, saves countless lives. That’s why since day one of this Administration, improving the IHS has been a top priority.

In fact, we’ve done more to modernize the IHS and advance overall health in Indian Country in President Obama’s first term than has been done in years. We have increased the IHS budget by almost a third, which is helping improve access to needed services.

HHS Sebelius Sawmill Headstart

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius meets members of the Sawmill Headstart Parents Council at the Sawmill Headstart. (Photo Credit Navajo Nation Press Office)

Another critical step forward is implementing the Affordable Care Act, which contains many important benefits for American Indians and Alaska Natives. First and foremost, it includes the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, ensuring that the IHS is here to stay. It also improves benefits and protections for American Indians and Alaska Natives who have insurance, whether they receive care inside or outside the IHS. And it gives them more choices for health coverage, including Medicaid and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

And in just under three months, the law will increase access to health coverage for millions of Americans, including American Indians and Alaska Natives through the new Health Insurance Marketplace. When the Marketplace opens October 1, hundreds of thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives will be able to enroll in quality, affordable health coverage that starts as early as January 1, 2014. And many will qualify for a break on costs through reduced or no out-of-pocket costs.

During a meeting of the Special Session of the Navajo Nation Council, I learned how Navajo leaders are ready to help spread the word and help educate their family and friends about these new coverage options, including those available in states expanding Medicaid.

They know that in order to address health disparities that disproportionately affect Native Americans, like diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS, we need to ensure they have access to affordable insurance so they can get the care they need.

All of this progress over the last four years has benefitted from critical Tribal Consultations that our Department has engaged in to ensure a deeper, more productive government-to-government relationship, and better health and greater opportunity throughout Indian Country.

But while we’ve come a long way, we’re poised to make even greater strides in the months and years to come. And I look forward to strengthening our deep Nation-to-Nation bond and partnership to make it happen.

Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.