Data shows gap in Indian health care 5-14-07

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - Statistics showing that health problems among American Indians in South Dakota are worse than state or national averages are “very somber and very troubling,” a state official said.

Those disparities include infant mortality, the rates of deaths from accidents and diabetes, and the rate of diagnosis of new cancers and deaths from cancer, Lon Kightlinger of the state Health Department told a legislative task force recently.

“This is a very large gap which must be closed,” Kightlinger said of the infant mortality rate variance.

The Health Department issued a special report early this year that said the national infant mortality rate of 6.8 deaths per 1,000 births compared with 6.9 in South Dakota from 2000 to 2005. The report further said the rate during that same period for white infants was 5.5 per 1,000 births, compared with 12.9 for Native Americans in the state.

The health department has a goal of reducing the state's overall rate to six deaths per 1,000 births within three years.

The 2007 Legislature created the Zaniya Task Force, which is supposed to recommend by the end of September ways to ensure that all people in South Dakota have access to health insurance. When Gov. Mike Rounds met with the task force at its first meeting in April, he encouraged the group to look closely at the needs in Indian Country, because of the generally higher rates of health problems.

It's a look that's long overdue, says Robert Moore, a council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.

“I think it's really important that this task force is including all South Dakotans in its work,” Moore said. Federal and tribal responsibility for the health of Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people “doesn't negate the state's responsibility to us as citizens of South Dakota,” he says.

The priorities that the federal Indian Health Services sets for care play a part in the disparity in statistics, Moore says, but so does that fact that “as Indian people, we often aren't good patients. We aren't fluent in patient-speak, and we sometimes aren't good about interpreting what's happening in our bodies and seeking care.”