Health care crisis hits South Dakota reservations

A crisis of heath care strikes South Dakota reservations, resulting in deaths. Deaths and crisis beget public outrage and political promises of solutions. Promises of solutions are followed by years of ambivalence, avoidance and neglect. A crisis of health care strikes South Dakota reservations, resulting in deaths…

The decades-long health care crisis in Indian Country, where underfunded and understaffed hospitals and emergency rooms struggle to provide adequate services, is back in the outrage and promises portion of the cycle, and hopefully this time we can make meaningful progress.

After the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services flagged hospitals on two South Dakota reservations last fall, conditions got so bad the federal government closed down the emergency room in Rosebud in December. That resulted in patients being diverted to emergency rooms some 50 miles away. Since then, six people have died in the back of ambulances on the way to treatment. Mary Smith, the now two-months-in head of Indian Health Services (IHS), has called these failings “unacceptable,” and has contracted with a private company to reopen the Rosebud emergency room, as well as run the same on Pine Ridge and Winnebago, Neb. South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem says she intends to bring legislation aimed at “real solutions, not just a fix.” Her opponent in this fall’s upcoming election, Paula Hawks, echoes that sentiment, but questions what, if any, progress can be made without addressing the funding gap for Native health care.

So we have attention on the problem, and the collective intention to solve it. And again, this is not new. We have been here before. But with some stability of service provided by temporary privatization, and the political will on both sides of the aisle, now is the opportune time for progress, and to not lose sight of the unacceptable, deadly conditions of our fellow South Dakotans.

And this is not just a Rosebud problem, it’s not just an IHS problem, and it’s not just a Bureau of Indian Affairs problem.

We can’t waste this momentum with the insanity of doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. And as Rep. Noem recently pointed out, to find a long-term solution, we’ll need partners with a strong connection to our state. And at some level, the answer is money. IHS successfully lobbied Congress for $2 million to upgrade the Rosebud facility and two others in the region. Money is also needed to help with recruitment of staff, another major problem on reservations.

It’s good these issues have our attention. Let’s not shirk our responsibility this time. Or we’ll be doomed to continue the death/promise/failure cycle.

— Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, May 21, 2016

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