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When a step aside was 'a godsend'

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markt | Aug 31, 2009 11:15 AM

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy jumped into American Indian issues with zeal after his brother, Bobby, was assassinated. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy had used the Indian Education Subcommittee as his platform during his extensive travels across Indian Country with the anti-poverty tour.

A young Ted Kennedy wrote in Look Magazine that RFK “saw, as I have seen, the resilience of the Indian way of life, a way of life that has for many generations resisted destruction despite government blunders that almost seem designed to stamp it out.”

In October 1969 Kennedy attended the National Congress of American Indians meeting in Albuquerque and called for the establishment of Select Committee on Human Needs of the American Indians in the U.S. Senate. The young senator blasted away at the Nixon administration. “We need no more presidential task forces. We need no more buck passing; we know where the blame lies,” the Albuquerque Journal quoted him telling the delegates. “We need no more empty promises; we know they are empty.”

A few months later Kennedy joined Bobby’s widow, Ethel, at an NCAI banquet. He promised to champion the native cause and to turn to American Indians because self-determination is the best solution.
But in the Senate there were competing ideas about how to make self-determination the policy of the land. One specific challenge was the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

“The more serious threat (to the bill) came from Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, or more accurately, from Senator Kennedy’s staff. As chair of the Health Subcommittee, Kennedy asked to share jurisdiction over the Indian health legislation,” wrote Dr. Abe Bergman and his co-authors in “A Political History of the Indian Health Service.”

Had the bill gone to Kennedy’s subcommittee there likely would have been little or no Republican support. At the Interior Committee, however, there was a growing bipartisan view that the bill was necessary.
Rick Lavis, who worked with Arizona Sen. Paul Fannin, said he had to sell his conservative boss on the cost of the legislation, $1.6 billion. “It’s costing how much?” Fannin asked. But the facts on the ground overwhelmingly supported the case. “The Indian Health Service was in total disarray – not as an organization – but in terms of facilities, its manpower, its ability to deliver health care,” Lavis said. Republicans also liked the idea that the health care improvement bill satisfied treaty obligations, rather than another big government anti-poverty effort.

Forrest Gerard, working for the Interior Committee and its chairman, Sen. Henry M. Jackson, arranged for a public forum with Kennedy and the National Indian Health Board. “Mel Sampson from Yakama agreed to ask, at the appropriate time, if Sen. Kennedy would forgo jurisdiction so that we might pass a bill,” Gerard said. “Amazingly he agreed to do that at the meeting. I don’t think his staff was too happy.” Gerard, however, called it “a godsend.”

Gerard added this week that Kennedy’s experience as a legislative tactician recognized the importance of bipartisan support. “He also recognized that this move would help insure that certain amendments he deemed critical, particularly on mental health, would be approved in the legislation.”

The result was the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was signed into law on Oct. 1, 1976.

I was thinking about this story during Sen. Kennedy’s funeral. The list of his accomplishments is long and he is well deserving of the honors that came from every corner. But I also think Kennedy’s greatness ought to be measured by the act of stepping aside at a critical time. The passing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (then and again now) was more important than any credit a senator could gain by occupying center stage.
This story also seems to be relevant to the current health care reform debate. The American Indian health system is different than that of the rest of the country and a complicated structure. Health care reform will have unintended consequences ranging from new insurance requirements to a better (or worse) process for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. That’s why it’s so critical for tribes, Native health organizations and the congressional committees with a unique understanding of American Indian history and policy to have a say on any final health care reform bill.

Even better: Congress could reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and adequately fund the health system that the U.S. government already operates. As Sen. Kennedy once put it: “We need no more buck passing; we know where the blame lies.”

Mark Trahant is the former editor of the editorial page for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He was recently named a Kaiser Media Fellow and will spend the year examining the Indian Health Service and its relevance to the national health reform debate. His regular blog posts on the subject can be found at marktrahant.com. Trahant is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

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