Urban Indian health centers against Bush budget cutting

    Billings, Montana (AP)

    Officials at Montana’s urban American Indian health centers say funding cuts in the Bush administration’s proposed budget could force them to drastically reduce services or shut down.

    Bush's proposal would eliminate $33 million from the Indian Health Services budget that provides funding for 34 urban Indian clinics across the nation. The cuts are part of the administration’s effort to reduce the country’s debt and provide more funding for Indian health care in rural areas and on reservations.

    Montana’s five urban Indian health centers, which serve up to 7,000 patients each year, all rely on the federal program for at least half of their funding, said Greg Fine of the National Council of Urban Indian Health in Washington, D.C.

    The clinics in Billings, Great Falls, Helena, Butte and Missoula stand to lose a total of about $4 million, he said.

    “It’d be devastating,” said Thomas Champagne, director of the Indian Family Health Clinic in Great Falls.

    IHS officials in Washington, D.C., say patients at the urban clinics can find health care services elsewhere through local, state and federal programs.

    Champagne isn’t so sure.

    For one thing, city and county health systems probably wouldn’t be able to handle the influx of patients if the Indian clinics close. Also, those providers may lack the cultural elements that are integral to the services provided at the Indian clinics.

    “I’m not sure they’d go to a non-Indian health care facility,” Champagne said.

    The clinic in Great Falls gets about half of its funding from the IHS program, with the rest coming from grants and other programs.

    If the federal money is eliminated, the grants, which are tied to the clinic’s operation, likely would dry up, too, forcing the clinic to close, Champagne said.

    In addition to free medical and dental treatment and substance-abuse counseling, the Indian Health Board of Billings Clinic provides transportation for its patients, including those who live on the Crow Reservation.

    Many patients would face limited options if the IHS funding disappears, said Rosemary Simon, health care coordinator and assistant director at the Billings clinic.

    “They wouldn’t have any if we closed,” she said. “It’s very serious.”

    Montana's senators also oppose the cuts. Sen. Max Baucus said it doesn’t make sense to pull the plug on health care programs that provide services to thousands of Montanans.

    “It’s an awful idea,” he said in a news release. “One of my top priorities is to ensure that all Montanans and Americans have access to quality, affordable health care. Montanans can count on me to fight this proposal tooth and nail.”

    Derek Hunter, a spokesman for Sen. Conrad Burns, said the Republican senator also plans to make sure the clinics get the funding they need.

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