In Indian country today, funding for health care programs runs dry by June of each year. After that, the only way an individual can qualify for medical care in Native American communities is if they are at risk of losing life or limb. If this were the case for all Americans, Congress would have acted years ago. It’s long past time to act for Native communities. There are few more fitting topics to be the first issue considered by the Senate in 2008 than the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

Native Americans under 25 die at a rate three times the national average. Native Americans are three times more likely to die in accidents, four times more likely to die from diabetes, and seven and a half times more likely to die from tuberculosis.

Chronic under-funding of the Indian Health Service has spurred these epidemics. Medicare, the program for our nation’s elderly, spends about $6,800 per person a year. Medicaid, which covers low-income Americans, spends about $4,300 per person. The Bureau of Prisons spends about $3,200 per Federal inmate for health care. By contrast to all of these, the Indian Health Service has only $2,100 for each person eligible for care at Tribal facilities. I have said for years that this is no way to care for America’s first people.

The Finance Committee passed a package of long-overdue updates to policies related to Indian health care in programs under Finance Committee jurisdiction: the Medicare, Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The Finance-approved package has been included in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act being considered in the Senate this week. Our measures improve reimbursement for care provided by Indian Health services, increase Native American enrollment in Medicaid and the children’s health insurance program, eliminates co-payments and fees charged to Native Americans, and create more flexibility for Indian Health Care services to provide care to at-risk patients.

Too many Native Americans have waited too long to see attention paid to the failing Indian health care system. Now is the time for action. Now is the time to address this crisis, and now is the time to pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.