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Washington, D.C. – Improving healthcare access, affordability and quality for Wyoming residents is a goal shared by U.S. Senators Craig Thomas and Mike Enzi, both R-Wyo., but nowhere is that mountain harder to climb than on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fremont County.

The senators were joined by Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Richard Brannan from Fort Washakie today in Washington on a path to the summit as they worked on improvements to the Reservation healthcare system through reauthorization of the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act, S. 1057.

The bill would, among other improvements:

• Authorize long-term hospice care;

• Reorganize behavioral health services such as alcohol and substance abuse, social services and mental health programs into a “comprehensive continuum” of prevention and treatment programs;

• Exempt Indians from Medicaid premiums and Medicaid and Medicare co-payments when services are supplied by Indian Health Services or facilities;

• Reauthorize the Indian Health Service to provide necessary sanitation facilities and services, including safe and adequate water supply systems;

• Authorize funding for dialysis and diabetes screening programs;

• Give tribal health programs the same advantages as federal agencies have for purchasing goods and services.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee held a joint hearing Thursday afternoon to consider the reauthorization of the bill. Enzi is chairman of the HELP Committee and Thomas is a senior member of the Indian Affairs Committee.

“In order to make health care equitable between American Indians and the general population, we need to continue to improve access to health care services and preventive services in our state,” Thomas said. “Access to health care is a major component to improve the quality of life in our tribal communities. Support of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act will have a positive affect on job creation and these local economies. Chairman Brannan’s heartfelt words here today speak volumes about the need to improve the overall health on the Wind River Reservation. I look forward to working with him as I continue to address rural health care needs in Wyoming.”

“The federal government started providing health services to American Indians in the early 1800s with vaccinations to prevent small pox and there were major leaps in policy in the 1920s. We’ve been wrestling with the reauthorization of this legislation for the last five years. But even after all this time the rates of tuberculosis, diabetes, alcoholism, suicide and other problems are higher on the reservations than in other parts of America. We can do better and we will with the improvements we are going to make with this bill,” said Enzi.

Brannan “put a face” on Indian healthcare needs by relating two specific Wind River Indian Reservation cases, one of a tribal elder with brain tumors and another of an abused infant. He also shared “staggering” statistics that show the disparity in healthcare for Indians and that of the rest of the population. He generally supports the bill, but believes more can be done to make it better.

“While it may not offer everything we would hope for, it does make a great step forward. I am here to lend my support to the proposed legislation, and hope that the next step will be to fully fund the programs that are so desperately needed on our Reservations, and to ask the United States to live up to its Trust Responsibilities with regard to healthcare,” Brannan said.

Thomas and Enzi are hopeful the details of the bill will be finalized by the fall and the Indian Affairs Committee will be able to vote on it and send it to the Senate floor for consideration.