The Progress in Native American Health

Progress is slow. But the gap in the general health of Native Americans and White Americans is diminishing. This is part of the legacy of the Indian Health Service.

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Has the Indian Health Service been an effective, government-run delivery system?

Consider this from a White House memo:

“While there has been improvement in health status of Indians in the past 15 years, a loss of momentum can further slow the already sluggish rate of approach to parity. Increased momentum in health delivery and sanitation as insured by this bill speed the rate of closing the existing gap in age at death.”

In other words, progress is slow.

But Dr. Ted Marrs wrote the memo on April 26, 1976, and its subject was the original Indian Health Care Improvement Act. He wrote: “In 1974 the average age at death of Indians and Alaskan natives was 48.3. For white U.S. citizens the average age of death was 72.3. For others, the average age was 62.7.”

Dr. Marrs wrote that the “bottom line” was an unavoidable connection between “equity and morality” when there is a more than twenty year differential in age at death between Indians and non-Indians.

So what do the numbers look like now?

The most recent Indian Health Service data on general mortality statistics is about a decade old. But it showed that the twenty-year differential has been reduced to a difference of less than five years.

“The American Indian Alaska Native life expectancy at birth (both sexes) for the IHS service area population was 72.3 years,” according to the recent IHS report Regional Differences in Indian Health, 2002-2003 edition.

Compare that with the average life expectancy for all U.S. races: 76.9 years.

But those numbers mask grave regional disparities within the Indian health system. An American Indian in the Aberdeen, South Dakota, area has a life expectancy of 66.8 years – more than ten years less than the U.S. average. 

I’d love to go back through the raw data from 1976. It would be interesting to see what kind of progress that life expectancy number reflects even in Aberdeen. Clearly there were regional improvements, but how much? What worked? 

To me this is the context that should be required in more of our data. We cannot look at what works – and what needs investment – in the Indian health care system unless we at least have a sense of the long view. This is not to say that the system is perfect or without serious problems that need fixing. 

Indian Health Service
The infant mortality rate for Native Americans has dropped from 25 (rate per 1,000 live births) in 1972-4 to 8.3 in 2002-4. That is a 67% decrease, but the 2002-4 rate is still 20 percent higher than the U.S. rate of 6.9 for all races.

In March, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on the Health Characteristics of the American Indian or Alaska Native Adult Population: United States, 2004-2008. (Important note: The CDC’s definition of American Indian is broader than the IHS standard.) 

“In general, compared to other groups, non-Hispanic AIAN adults are more likely to have poorer health, unmet medical needs due to cost, diabetes, trouble hearing, activity limitations, and to have experienced feelings of psychological distress in the past 30 days,” the report said.

Indian Health Service
Native Americans are still more likely to die at an earlier age than Americans of other races.

The bottom line: The native community “faces many health challenges as reflected in their higher rates of risky behaviors, poorer health status and health conditions, and lower utilization of health services.”

That’s really not news. But there are other items in the CDC report worth more thought and exploration. For example, unlike another recent government report, this one counts clients of IHS as insured. That data shows nearly 40 percent of AIAN have private insurance, another 41 percent have public insurance (IHS, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s health insurance program) and 19 percent are uninsured. For the U.S. Hispanic population, the last two numbers are almost reversed, 40 percent uninsured and 14 percent with public insurance. 

What does this mean? It means that American Indians and Alaska Natives have basic access to care. The CDC says 84 percent have a “usual place for health care.” That compares to 86 percent for white Americans, 85 percent for African Americans and 72 percent for Hispanics. The numbers show most of us have regular contact with our medical team.

And we are living longer. The CDC reports, “The AIAN population has a life expectancy at birth that is 2.4 years less than that of all U.S. populations combined.”

There’s not parity with the general population, not by a long shot, because of the chronic nature of so many diseases that afflict Indian Country. But one measure, “closing the existing gap in age at death,” has certainly been improving over the four decades.

Mark Trahant is a Kaiser Media Fellow examining the Indian Health Service and its relevance to the national health care reform debate. He is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Comment at www.marktrahant.com 

 

 

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