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Guest column: Tribal health leaders critical for statewide health collaborations

| March 16, 2021 4:28 PM

As leaders in the health care, patient advocacy and public health community, we applaud the State House Appropriations Committee vote to retain the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ two positions dedicated to Tribal health, the Tribal relations manager and director of American Indian health.

As statewide health organizations and associations committed to ensuring access to quality health care across the state, we rely on and partner closely with Native-led health organizations and Tribal health authorities, including these DPHHS colleagues, to ensure health services reach all Montana communities. These positions are critical to our joint efforts to keep Montana healthy.

Since the sobering statistic that Native Montanans’ lifespans are approximately 20 years shorter than white Montanans’ was revealed in the 2013 Montana State Health Assessment, significant efforts have been undertaken to address this tragic disparity. The creation of the director of American Indian health position, one of the first of its kind in the United States, was a pivotal moment in Montana’s approach to empowering American Indians to determine how they would leverage state resources to best meet the needs of their individual tribal communities. These positions provide invaluable input and insights into how best to administer state and federally funded programs, such as Medicaid Expansion, COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts and important chronic disease prevention and screening services throughout the state’s tribal nations, reservations and urban Indian populations.

The positions have allowed for the development and cultivation of relationships between Tribal members and the Department built on trust, respect and consideration of the unique cultural values specific to each Tribal nation. Eliminating these positions would set Montana back in its efforts to address health equity and send the message that the Legislature believes a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to public health and health services is the best approach for our culturally and geographically diverse state.

The roles of tribal relations manager and director of American Indian health are uniquely positioned to enable DPHHS to effectively engage and strengthen collaborative partnerships with Tribes and Urban Indian organizations to identify and reduce health disparities among American Indians; to coordinate federally- and state-required tribal consultations; to provide culturally-appropriate resources to American Indians; to reduce barriers to care for American Indians and to coordinate efforts within DPHHS and other state departments to reduce health disparities.

By voting to retain the positions of tribal relations manager and director of American Indian health, Montana decided to continue progress toward addressing American Indian health disparities, towards honoring the state’s responsibility of government-to-government relations with Tribal Nations, and reaffirmed its commitment to the first people of this land.

Kristin Page-Nei, Alliance for a Healthy Montana, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network; Lauren Wilson, Pediatrician & VP of Montana Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics; Carrie Nyssen, Senior Director, Advocacy, American Lung Association; Erin McGowan, Executive Director, Association of Montana Public Health Officials; Annie Tegan, Advocacy Director, Western U.S., Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; Emily Coyle, Alliance for a Healthy Montana, Montana Association of Healthcare Purchasers; Shannon Therriault, Director, Missoula, Montana Environmental Health Association; Rich Rasmussen, President and CEO, Montana Hospital Association; Jean Branscum, President and CEO, Montana Medical Association; Cindy Stergar, CEO, Montana Primary Care Association; Lora Wier, Executive Director, Montana Public Health Association; and Cora Neumann, Founder and Director, We Are Montana