The Indian Health Service (“IHS”) is an agency that offers affordable or free healthcare to members of the 567 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes and their descendants. Of the roughly 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, a majority of them live mainly on or near reservations and in rural communities, mostly in the western U.S. and Alaska. Unfortunately, based on existing data, the American Indian and Alaska Native populations as a whole have been confronted with ongoing disparities in health.
American Indians and Alaska Natives have long experienced lower health status when compared to the rest of the country. According to IHS, American Indians and Alaska Natives have a life expectancy that is 4.4 years less than the rest of the American population. They also have higher rates of death from medical conditions, including chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diabetes, unintentional injuries, assault, suicide, and chronic lower respiratory disease.
These disparities exist perhaps in part because of social inequality and disproportionate poverty, as most American Indians live in poverty, with limited access to health care. However, inadequate funding of IHS and the fact that a majority of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in rural settings with limited access to the IHS facilities also play a role in the problem. Inadequate funding often results in many American Indians and Alaska Natives receiving healthcare that may be inadequate or of minimal quality. In addition, others are forced to wait long periods of time to receive care. As a result, some may avoid or delay necessary screenings and care.
Given the higher health status enjoyed by most Americans, the persistent health disparities of American Indians and Alaska Natives are troubling. Moving forward, it should be a top priority to find better ways to provide adequate and quality healthcare to American Indian and Alaska Native Tribes.