Feds to pay millions for neglecting Native health

Settlement with Alaska villages believed to be the largest judgment ever against the U.S. Indian Health Service

Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The U.S. Indian Health Service will pay nearly $50 million in a settlement with Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages that didn't get the federal funds they were due to cover health care costs.

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The settlement - $25 million, plus more than $23 million in interest - is believed to be the largest judgment ever against the agency, according to Lloyd Miller, an Anchorage attorney who has filed claims against the IHS on behalf of tribal organizations.

Agency officials did not immediately return phones calls Tuesday to The Associated Press seeking comment on the settlement approved last week by the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals.

The 13-year funding shortfall for health care hurt the region, which has high rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, suicide and unintentional injury, often related to drinking, said Dan Winkelman, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. vice president and general counsel.

The corporation runs a hospital in Bethel, 45 village-based clinics and four larger clinics in an area stretching across 75,000 square miles. Miller said providing health care in the region is very expensive.

Attorneys for the health corporation said they couldn't discuss the specifics of the mediation.

For decades the Indian Health Service has paid Indian tribes and Alaska Native groups to provide health services on behalf of the federal government.

The agency has shortchanged the contracts since the 1990s, Miller said. Congress didn't appropriate adequate funding, but that didn't eliminate the agency's responsibility to honor contracts, Miller said.

With rising health care costs and relatively flat revenue streams, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. has repeatedly had to lay off or cut back its staff, Winkelman said.

The corporation filed the first of five claims in 1996, demanding to be paid in full under various contracts, funding agreements and compacts. The federal agency didn't pay the claims and the corporation filed its appeal in August 2006.

About two dozen other cases are pending against the agency. Most are before the appeals board and some are in federal court. Hundreds of other claims haven't yet reached the point of a formal appeal, Miller said.

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