Bush administration pushes cuts, limits to Indian Health Service

Many Indians who have been removed from the rolls of federally recognized tribes say they have a hard time getting government services. But it may get even harder due to several Bush administration proposals.

When President George W. Bush delivered his 2008 budget proposal last month, he had eliminated the entire $32.7 million in funding for urban clinics that serve many non-enrolled Indians. This federal agency runs clinics offering free and low-cost health services to Indians.

Many Indians who have been disenrolled from California tribes say they have a harder time proving their status to receive health care from these clinics after they lost their membership status. The benefits they do receive cost more and are more limited.

Meanwhile, the administration is also moving to explicitly limit benefits to members of federally recognized tribes. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in March. At that hearing, a Justice Department official said IHS was probably barred by the U.S. Constitution from offering benefits to Indians who are not members of federally recognized tribes.

“Under the Supreme Court’s decisions, there is a substantial likelihood that legislation providing special benefits based on something other than membership or equivalent affiliation with a federally recognized tribe might be regarded by the courts as a racial classification subject to strict constitutional scrutiny,” said deputy assistant attorney general C. Frederick Beckner III, according to an Associated Press account of the hearing.

Then late last month, Indian Country Today IHS director Charles Grim testified to the Senate Committee that the administration had changed the transcript of his March testimony before the committee. Grim said the administration removed references he made to statutes that lay out “the federal government’s responsibility for meeting the health needs of American Indians/Alaska Natives.”

Activist Laura Wass of the American Indian Movement said that such federal policies, combined with thousands of recent disenrollments by federally recognized tribes, are creating a crisis. Many of the people using these services are also contending with poverty, geographical isolation, drug abuse and other problems.

“The tiny bit of resources, those are just a Band-Aid,” Wass said. “You lose that and you’ve got nothing.”

Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at

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