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Native American Clinics May Limit Services Due to Government Shutdown

A dentist inspects a patients teeth at a Southern Indian Health Council clini...

Credit: Courtesy of Southern Indian Health Council

Above: A dentist inspects a patients teeth at a Southern Indian Health Council clinic in this undated photo.

Health care for Native Americans is another service caught in the crosshairs of the partial government shutdown. The agency that oversees Native American health care, Indian Health Services, is currently not funding the Tribes and Urban Indian Health Centers due to the shutdown. The centers provide care to thousands of Native Americans in San Diego County each year. San Diego County is home to 18 federally recognized tribes.

Michael Garcia, the chairman of the Southern Indian Health Council, said the clinics are operating on reserve funding. He estimates these funds will last for up to a year. Garcia sat down with KPBS Evening Edition anchor Ebone Monet to talk about how the clinics are doing, and what is his plan is if the shutdown continues.

Here are some highlights from that interview.

Reported by Roland Lizarondo

Q: Can you tell me how this partial shutdown has taken a toll?

A: The first thing I gotta say is that IHS has already classically underfunded our clinics. So, there’s a saying in Indian country that ‘don’t get sick past August because there won’t be any funding to cover you.’ So we already see it at a pretty strong disparity or pretty strong shortfall as far as our own funding. Now, this closure is making things worse. I mean, it doesn’t help at all.

Q: So, are you at the point where you’re having to limit your services or turn anyone away?

A: We haven’t done so yet. And we’re concerned about that. As the shutdown goes forward, you know, we’re very concerned, and we’re worried about either having to cut back on services or maybe having to limit the people that we can use.

Q: As soon as the shutdown happened, what happened?

A: We’re allowed to continue because we do have some reserve funds. You know this isn’t the first time this has happened. Out of caution and out of decent business practices, we’ve managed to save some money. But it’s not a lot. And if this shutdown continues that’s when it’s going to be a difficult situation for us. That, you know, we have to pare down services.

Q: What’s your reaction to the reason behind this partial government shutdown?

A: It’s unnecessary. We have so many other priorities that are more important. People are being affected unnecessarily. And that really disappoints me. To potentially deny services to someone who’s not feeling well or maybe somebody who’s hurt. It upsets me because it doesn’t need to happen. This is all very unnecessary.

Q: The fact that this is happening to indigenous communities across the country who rely on this funding, how important is this service that is provided?

It’s essential. For the longest time, health wasn’t provided to a lot of Indian country. And now that we’ve gotten to a point where we can provide health care to our Indian people, and now have it taken away, once again unnecessarily, it’s potentially devastating. A promise was made to us that we would get health care for as long as the rivers ran and the grass would grow. And as far as I’m concerned, the river’s still running and the grass is still growing.

Indian Health Service released the following statement to KPBS:

During a lapse in appropriations, federal employees performing certain work, including that involving the safety of human life, are excepted from furlough. IHS has determined that this exception applies to all employees at IHS facilities where direct health care is provided. IHS continues to provide direct clinical health care services as well as referrals for contracted services that cannot be provided through IHS clinics. However, many administrative activities are impacted due to the lapse in funding for the IHS.

Similar to Indian Health Service direct service facilities, tribal health programs and urban Indian organizations are authorized to continue operation; however, contracts with these organizations to provide health services cannot be paid by IHS during a lapse in appropriations. Tribal and urban programs continue to have authority to bill and collect reimbursements from third-party payers, and these reimbursements are not affected by a lapse in appropriations.

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