Shutdown puts strain on hundreds of Native American tribes
FLAGSTAFF, ARIZ. >> Fallout from the federal government shutdown is hurting Native Americans as dwindling funds hamper access to health care and other services. The pain is especially deep in tribal communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, where one person often supports an extended family.
The effects were being felt far and wide.
In New Mexico, a lone police officer patrolled a Native American reservation larger in size than Houston on a shift that normally has three people, responding to multiple car wrecks during a snow storm, emergency calls and requests for welfare checks.
Elsewhere, federally funded road maintenance programs are operating with skeleton crews and struggling to keep roads clear on remote reservations. Tribal members said they can’t get referrals for specialty care from the Indian Health Service if their conditions aren’t life-threatening.
Native American tribes rely heavily on funding guaranteed by treaties with the U.S., acts of Congress and other agreements for public safety, social services, education and health care for their members. Because of the shutdown, tribal officials say some programs are on the brink of collapse and others are surviving with tribes filling funding gaps.
About 9,000 Indian Health Service employees, or 60 percent, are working without pay and 35 percent are working with funding streams not affected by the shutdown, according to the Health and Human Services department’s shutdown plan. That includes staff providing direct care to patients. The agency delivers health care to about 2.2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
The agency gets money from the Interior Department, whose budget is snared by the shutdown. For many tribal members, IHS is the only option for health care unless they want to pay out of pocket or have other insurance. Benefits under programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are unaffected by the partial government shutdown.
Much administrative work at IHS has come to a halt, and while most of it doesn’t have an immediate effect on health care delivery, some patients were experiencing delays. Clara Pratte’s 68-year-old mother had surgery to clear up vision in one of her eyes earlier this month, but the Navajo woman wasn’t able to get a referral from IHS for a follow-up appointment after pressure built up in her eye.
“We’re managing, but it’s a matter of when the government might open again to have it evaluated by a specialist,” Pratte said.
In Washington state, the Seattle Indian Health Board plans to cut services if the federal shutdown continues more than a week or two. Endangered programs include an in-patient treatment center for chemical dependency and a traditional medicine program that incorporates a sweat lodge, storytelling and drumming to help people in recovery, government affairs officer Aren Sparck said.