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Native Americans in Montana have a life expectancy 20 years shorter than non-Indians. That statistic gleaned from a 2013 state health department report is appalling. Native Americans are more likely to suffer cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory illnesses, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

It’s as if some of us are living in a Third World country without 21st century health and safety services.

In fact, Native Americans have less access to health care in Montana, largely because extreme poverty is so prevalent. Although Native Americans comprise less than 10 percent of Montana’s population, it’s estimated that they account for 20,000 — nearly 30 percent — of the 70,000 Montanans who will be newly eligible for Medicaid under the state law enacted this spring to cover very low-income citizens.

The Indian Health Service and federal health programs run by tribes have proven woefully inadequate to serve the health needs of Montana Indians. These programs do a lot of good work, but it’s not nearly enough to provide necessary health care year round to all tribal members. There are rules and exclusions that hinder access. Thousands of tribal members who live off their reservation often can’t access health services in their community. Lack of reliable transportation to health centers also is a common barrier. Even patients who can reach the clinics or hospital may not get services because resources are limited. Congress has underfunded Indian Health Service for years. Poor administration in the agency has compounded all its other problems.

So Gov. Steve Bullock’s order last week establishing a state Office of American Indian Health is welcome and overdue.

We wonder how much the one full-time employee assigned to the new office will be able to accomplish. But if that person has the strong and continuing support of the governor and director Richard Opper, this office could help generate changes that will improve the lives of thousands of Montanans.

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Crucially, this effort was started in cooperation with a coalition of tribal health directors, who “committed to being active partners with the state in addressing these health disparities,” according to Bullock’s executive order.

The order correctly states that reducing these health disparities would improve Montana’s economy. With just 1 million residents and a rapidly aging population, Montana needs all of its people to be healthy and productive. As savvy Montana economists have warned us for many years, we have an impending labor shortage with too few working-age adults to do the jobs needed to grow our state economy.

As Bullock said: “All Montanans deserve the opportunity to live healthy and productive lives.”

-- Billings Gazette

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