‘Medicare for all’ would finally fulfill tribes’ treaty rights

The proposed plan is unlikely to pass, but would bolster the Indian health system.

 

This story originally appeared on Trahant Reports and is republished here with permission. 

Bernie Sanders is expected to introduce his version of health care reform, a plan he calls “Medicare for all.” At least fifteen Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors to the single-payer plan.

“This is where the country has got to go,” Sanders told the Washington Post. “Right now, if we want to move away from a dysfunctional, wasteful, bureaucratic system into a rational health-care system that guarantees coverage to everyone in a cost-effective way, the only way to do it is Medicare for All.”

Sanders’ bill has no chance in a Republican Congress. Yet the Vermont Independent is adding to the richness of the debate. He is showing a clear alternative to Republican plans (the latest is one by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bill Cassidy, R-La.)

But Indian Country should take note. Sanders’ bill would fully fund the Indian health system. Let’s do the math. The current budget for the Indian Health Service is $6.091 billion dollars. And of that, roughly $1.2 will come from Medicaid, Medicare and other insurance. This serves about 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives in 39 states.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2015.
Gage Skidmore/Flickr

But if Sanders’ proposal for universal care were enacted every one of those 2.2 million patients would have funding from insurance. The national average for Medicare beneficiary is $10,986. The total: $24.191 billion. A four-fold increase (and this does not include appropriations, just insurance dollars). So if you include both, the total is roughly $30 billion.

This sound like an awful lot of money, right? That big number reflects what other health systems already spend. So actually it’s the ideal demonstration of just how underfunded the Indian Health Service is under current law and insurance schemes. This is what a fully funded Treaty Right looks like.

Of course some of this can be done now, even without Sanders’ bill. Many people in tribal communities are posting on Facebook exactly how to sign up for Medicaid (the government insurance program that so many in Indian Country already qualify for.) They are doing this as an act of defiance, because the Trump administration has recently quit advertising the program and is not actively promoting sign-ups.

But, again, let’s do the math. If every American Indian and Alaska Native was eligible for Medicaid that would net the Indian health system about $7.211 billion (instead of the $1.2 billion from third-party billing now). I actually think this is a more realistic number (even under a Sanders plan) because it does not include some of the spending by Medicare (and for that matter, Medicaid) on senior citizens. The national average for Medicaid is a modest $3,278 for an adult and for $2,577 average for children. The total for IHS would be in the neighborhood of $15 billion. More than double what is spent now.

Either Medicare or Medicaid: This is what full funding looks like. And a Treaty Right fulfilled. Finally.

Speaking of children, the Senate has reached a bipartisan deal in the Senate to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Plan or CHIP. This insurance plan covers 9 million young people through Medicaid. The program is set to expire at the end of the month unless Congress acts and then President Donald J. Trump signs a new legislation into law.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Sanders as a Democrat. He is an Independent who caucuses with Democrats.

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