Painkillers ~ In Lieu of Indian Health Care
[imgbelt img=inuit-horny-toad280.jpg]Tribal leaders call the abuse of painkilling drugs “epidemic,” but until there’s decent health treatment for Native Americans, prescription drugs will substitute for healing.
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“Well, what can I get you today?” According to my cousin, this is the first question that Indian Health Service (IHS) doctors ask when you visit the clinic on her reservation in rural Wisconsin.
The question, she says, refers to medication, and unfortunately the answer is often a request for some form of painkiller. She reports that on her reservation in rural N. Wisconsin, nearly every family has been touched by abuse of prescription painkillers. She told me of folks being solicited to sell their drugs in the parking lot outside a health clinic, of people afraid to leave their homes lest drug seekers ransack their houses looking for painkillers, of robberies, beatings and worse, all as drug users seek narcotics. Sick with worry and heartbreak, she tells me of her own daughter’s struggle with prescription drugs. Unfortunately, I am hearing similar stories from friends and relatives throughout Indian Country.
According to a story in the Great Falls Tribune, tribal leaders are describing prescription drug misuse as epidemic. The same story reports some stunning data. According to James Melbourne, medical director for the Ft. Peck Tribes in Montana, the federal government pays an average of $15,000 per individual per year for prescription drugs on Indian reservations. I was unable to get a response from the Indian Health Service’s Press and Public Relations Office regarding this information.
Of course, IHS is not solely responsible for script drug abuse in Indian country. Like many communities, Indian country has its share of doctor shoppers, who receive medications from many sources on and off the reservation.
In defense of IHS, it is a chronically underfunded agency. Part of the Federal Health and Human Services department, IHS has been funded with about half of what it needs to provide quality health care to the 2 million American Indians in the 36 states that it serves. The result is that health care is rationed to American Indians, especially those in rural areas. IHS patients are classed based on the urgency of their ailments. People with chronic back, knee, and hip problems can wait for weeks for an appointment and months for surgery. These folks and kids with problems like chronic ear infections are classed as seeking “elective treatment for disease.” The result is that patients wait, and to help them live with the pain while they wait, the doctors do the best they can within the system. They prescribe pain medication.
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