HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The chairman of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians urged state lawmakers to expand Medicaid to increase Native Americans' access to quality health care.
"People's lives literally depend on it," Gerald Gray told members of the Senate and House on Monday during his State of Tribal Nations address, Lee Newspapers reported.
Over half of Montana's adult American Indians are uninsured, and the health care provided by the Indian Health Services is limited and inadequate, he said. This situation leaves Indians without access to basic services and preventative care and gives them little choice in their own health care decisions.
Gray cited statistics from the 2013 State of the State health report that said white men and women in Montana live an average of about 20 years longer than Native Americans.;
"These statistics can simply no longer be ignored. This is an entire generation of people who are leaving our families and our communities too soon. Children are growing up without grandparents, families are losing children and children are losing parents," he said.
Medicaid expansion would go a long way toward improving those statistics, he said.
"The revenue received from third parties, such as Medicaid, is absolutely critical to building tribal health programs and delivering quality health care to Indians," Gray said. "These 100 percent federal pass-through dollars, which have no impact on the state general fund, are important to facilities as they continue to build their local infrastructure."
Montana has the third-highest rate of poverty among American Indians, behind North and South Dakota, Gray said.
"We can, and must, do better," he said, noting that Montana's unemployment rate is 4.5 percent but the unemployment rates on the state's reservations average between 60 percent and 80 percent.
"As a legislative body, you play a significant role in helping us get to a better place," Gray told lawmakers.
He said he hopes his tribe's 130-year effort in seeking federal recognition ends this year.
"Federal recognition is not a receiving line for federal handouts," Gray said. "For the Little Shell, it's the opportunity for the right to self-govern, the right to tribal sovereignty and the right for us to work with all of you, government to government."