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Guest column: Montana’s Indians deserve a better budget

by By the Montana Indian Caucus for The Lake County Leader
| January 21, 2021 12:30 AM

Native communities have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, and many of us have lost loved ones to this virus. Many more have suffered from the reopened wounds of generational trauma that comes with a new disease hurting our people.

The promise of COVID vaccines should bring our communities a sense of relief. Unfortunately, $1 billion in proposed cuts to health care for vulnerable populations coming out of the state Legislature drastically undermine this hope for Montana Indians.

The cuts proposed and advanced in the Legislature would target long-term care for seniors and people with disabilities who need help living in their homes. The cuts also jeopardize resources for mental health and addiction treatment. At a time when we should be doing even more to recover from the pandemic and address the severe health disparities in our state, these cuts will further endanger the health and livelihoods of Native Montanans.

Without real investments in health care from the Legislature, the Indian Health Service hospitals, rural hospitals and health clinics that serve Native Montanans will be left to eat the cost of medical care for a large percentage of their patients. As Montanans know, many of these providers cannot afford to continue to provide top quality care or even stay open when their budgets are under this type of crushing stress.

Massive cuts to health care, in addition to crippling care providers who work with Montana Indians, will have devastating ripple effects across local economies. Simply put, these kinds of cuts will hamstring our economic recovery before it begins, cutting high-paying jobs in the health care industry and forcing Native Montanans out of the workforce to fill the health care gaps that this action will create. Health care needs are already unmet through chronic underfunding of Indian Health Services, and these cuts would only exacerbate the struggles that programs for Montana Natives already face.

Simply offering words and well-wishes such as “efforts to prioritize Native American” recovery post-COVID means little — we need real action. Historically, fewer investments have meant Native issues being pushed to the side. With significantly less funding, as proposed by this $1 billion in budget cuts, we know that Montana Indians will be left to fend for ourselves in returning to a sense of community safety, normalcy and healing. As the Montana American Indian Caucus, we strongly oppose this and urge our colleagues to do the same.

Signatories: Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy (HD-32), Rep. Donavon Hawk (HD-76), Sen. Susan Webber (SD-8), Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena (HD-41), Sen. Shane Morigeau (SD-48), Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy (HD-42), Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (HD-15), Rep. Tyson Running Wolf (HD-16), Sen. Mike Fox (SD-16).