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For American Indians, Health is a Human and Legal Right

Sam Aptekar
Phuoc Le

By PHUOC LE, MD and SAM APTEKAR

Most will be surprised to learn that American Indians and Alaska Natives represent the only populations in the United States with a legal birthright to health care.[1] Even though Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including…medical care and necessary social services,” U.S. federal policy only guarantees this human right to enrolled tribal members. The source of this juridical entitlement is what the United States Supreme Court has defined as the federal trust responsibility.

Between 1787 and 1871, the United States signed nearly 400 treaties with Indian tribes, in which, for the exchange of millions of acres of tribal land, the U.S. government promised in perpetuity to respect their sovereignty and provide benefits, including housing, education, and healthcare. Argued in March 1983, United States v. Mitchell is the most recent Supreme Court case establishing this principle as a matter of law. This week marks the 36-year-anniversary of that seminal case, providing us the opportunity to discuss the federal government’s failure to adequately fund the healthcare institutions that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives despite its legal responsibility to do so.

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall penned the majority opinion of United States v. Mitchell.

The current life expectancy for American Indians and Alaska Natives is 73 years, 5.5 years less than that of the general population. American Indians die at higher rates from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and kidney disease. When we consider why Native communities suffer from preventable and treatable diseases at disproportionate frequencies, we must first evaluate the inequity in Congressional funding for Indian Health Services (IHS), the national agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for providing comprehensive healthcare to the country’s enrolled American Indians and Alaska Natives.

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