Native Village Youth and Education News

May 1, 2009 Issue 198
Volume 3

Native American death rates soar as most people are living longer
Babies die at a rate 44% higher than decade ago

Condensed by Native Village

Washington:  From reservations to urban areas, Washington's Native Americans are dying at higher rates than a decade ago while non-natives are living longer, healthier lives.

A 2006 state Department of Health report showed that:
Native American men's life expectancy has changed little since the early '90s. Their life expectancy is 71, compared to a white male at 77.
Native American women's death rates have soared by 20% in a 15-year period. For others, the overall death rate had decreased by 17%.
Native American babies are dying at a 44% higher rate than a decade ago. The overall rate of infant deaths had declined.

"People are suffering," said Marsha Crane, health director of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe in Western Washington. "It's, 'Here's the bad news, here's your diagnosis. But here's the worse news: We can't afford to pay for your drugs, or your surgery.' That's happening every day with tribes across the country."

Despite a century of progress by the Indian Health Service, "what I'm starting to see, in some of the data, is that that progress has either stagnated or is starting to reverse itself, "said Joe Finkbonner from the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board






IHS Service Area.

Experts say the downward shift:
 Stems from health disparities from years of inadequate funding.
 U.S  funding for American Indian health care has fallen chronically short of medical inflation.
The government spent more on health care (per capita) for federal prisoners and Medicaid patients than for Native Americans.
While some tribes are rich with casino monies, many just break even and 50% of tribes don't even have casinos.

Many tribes are so poor that they've invoked a "life or limb" standard, paying for specialty care only in dire emergencies. "If the leg don't have to come off, and if their eye don't have to come out, they won't get referred out," said one Colville council member.

Tribes also are running out of medical funds earlier in the year's funding cycle which begin every October.

"A lot of tribes used to say, 'Don't get sick after June,' " said Danette Ives, health director of the Port Gamble Tribe. "Now it's like, 'Don't get sick after January.' "

Not enough rural doctors, high gas prices and terrible reservation roads also contribute to the situation.  Michael Buckingham, a Makah Indian, lost two fingers in a fishing accident. He needed physical therapy for a third injured finger, but couldn't afford the 70-mile trips to the closest therapy clinic.

"If I can't get it fixed, I'm just ready to have it cut off, because it's too painful," Buckingham said.

Elizabeth Buckingham, Michael's mother, is the tribe's health director. She said lack of federal funds forces many Makah tribal members to live with chronic pain. Pregnant woman forgo prenatal care and many people suffer from untreated depression.

 And this is a place already distraught from drug overdoses and an unemployment rate of 50%

"I'm looking at the people I'm serving here," Buckingham said. "They're staying in their houses with the lights turned off, and they're literally hungry."

For the state's 110,000 Native Americans, the problems began generations ago when white settlers brought their  diseases to Native Americans, then took away their homes, language and culture.  LoAnn Rochna, 56, doesn't understand how the U.S. took her tribe's lands, then broke their promise to adequately fund tribal health care. LoAnn suffers from a painful bone and joint disease. She cannot afford surgery, and without dental care, she  lost most of her molars and has a difficult time eating.

LoAnn says her sorrows began the day Europeans stepped into her mother's tiny village and spread tuberculosis. Her mother got sick, never recovered and died young. Two brothers and her best friend drank themselves to death.  One friend's body was found in the snow after a night of drinking.

"He died right in front of the welfare office, freezing to death," Rochna recalled.



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