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New report details health challenges facing urban Indians

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  • New report details health challenges facing urban Indians
    By GARANCE BURKE Associated Press Writer
    Article Launched: 03/05/2008 12:29:54 AM PST

    FRESNO, Calif.—Rich or poor, American Indians in cities across the country are facing startling health challenges unlike those of any other urban population, according to a new study of federal data.

    Even as urban Indians move up the income ladder, researchers found rates of binge drinking and tobacco use in the community are staying the same—or sometimes even increasing—in cities from New York to Helena, Mont.

    "When Indian folks drink, it appears to have nothing to do with how much money they have, and that's not true for any other racial group," said Maile Taualii, scientific director at the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute, which announced the findings Wednesday. "There seems to be a sense of hopelessness, a sense that diabetes, alcoholism and other health problems are inevitable in the community."

    More than half of all American Indians and Alaska Natives in the United States live in cities.

    And for years—decades in some places—native people have been receiving health care at government-funded tribal clinics in or near the urban areas where they live.

    Yet rarely have medical studies focused on the population's health as compared to other urbanites, or to illness rates among Indian people living on tribal lands.

    Taualii's nonprofit—which gets federal money to track disease trends among native people—analyzed five years of data from a random digit dial telephone survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 34 cities.

    They were alarmed by what they found: Among Indian respondents who reported drinking, rates of binge drinking sometimes grew higher as respondents' income increased, instead of declining as with all other races, Taualii said.

    Researchers also concluded that rates of diabetes, obesity and smoking remained about the same among low-income and wealthy urban Indians. That's not the case in the general population, where people with lower incomes tend to experience higher rates of those health problems, Taualii said.

    The results didn't surprise Newman Washington, who runs drug and alcohol programs at an urban clinic in Wichita, Kan., where he said Kickapoo and Potawatomi patients often return multiple times for addiction treatment.

    "People go away and get an education, but then they come back home and have a really hard time changing their behavior," said Washington, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe of Wyoming. "Whenever you start looking at the core, there's some shame and guilt that people are carrying around from past generations."

    Clinics like Washington's are one of the few places urban American Indians can seek out culturally competent health care. Providing health care to all Indians has long been part of the government's trust responsibility, but several in the government's network came under fire last year for mismanagement.

    Staffers say it's hard to treat recurring health problems given the severe budget restrictions under which most urban facilities operate.

    In Wichita, clients trying to detox from alcohol often have to wait two months to be admitted to a hospital bed, or travel 75 miles to Ponca City, Okla. to be seen in an inpatient facility, Washington said.

    A bill approved by the Senate last week would boost programs at the federally funded Indian Health Service, prompt new construction and modernization of health clinics on reservations and attempt to recruit more Indians into health professions.

    Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the urban clinics, did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the study.

    Dixie Jackson, a former chairwoman of the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, disputed its findings. She said she hoped health conditions for her tribe would improve thanks to a cash infusion from their casino, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills north of Fresno.

    "If you don't have a life, the first thing you do is pick up a bottle or cigarettes or resort to violence," she said. "In the next five years, you will see a big change in people's health, education and in how they run their households. At least that's what I'm praying for."
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