Tagged Disparities

How The Eastern Cherokee Took Control Of Their Health Care

CHEROKEE, N.C. — Light pours through large windows and glass ceilings of the Cherokee Indian Hospital onto a fireplace, a waterfall and murals. Rattlesnake Mountain, which the Cherokee elders say holds ancient healing powers, is visible from most angles. The hospital’s motto — “Ni hi tsa tse li” or “It belongs to you” — is written in Cherokee syllabary on the wall at the main entrance.

“It doesn’t look like a hospital, and it doesn’t feel like a hospital,” Kristy Nations said on a recent visit to pick up medications at the pharmacy. “It actually feels good to be here.”

Profits from the tribe’s casino have helped the 12,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opt out of the troubled U.S. government-run Indian Health Service. They are part of an expanding experiment in decentralization, in which about 20% of federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, California, Arizona and elsewhere have been granted permission to take full control of their health care.

For the North Carolina Cherokee, self-governance has meant adopting an integrated care model designed by Alaska Natives to deliver care that not only improves patients’ health, but also is tailor-made for the needs of the tribe. It has meant the opening of a 20-bed state-of-the-art facility in 2015 and the construction of an 18-bed mental health clinic scheduled to open in October 2020.

The hospital is a “medical home for our people,” said Casey Cooper, the hospital’s CEO who is a member of the tribe.

Half of the Indian Health Service budget is now managed by Indian tribes to various degrees. But while full control has worked out well for tribes with resources like the Eastern Cherokee, they are one of just a few bright spots in an otherwise dire medical landscape. It remains to be seen how widely this model can be applied.

“Not all tribal communities have access to the economic opportunities that we have,” Cooper said. “Some tribes are in these desolate, remote locations where there are no natural resources or economic development opportunities. I get that.”

Casey Cooper, CEO of the Cherokee Indian Hospital(Katja Ridderbusch for KHN)

Self-Governing To Change The Narrative

The U.S is legally obligated to offer health services to all members of the 573 federally recognized tribes. Yet the federal Indian Health Service, which currently provides direct care to about 2.2 million out of the nation’s estimated 3.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, is chronically underfunded. The current IHS budget is about $5.4 billion, yet the National Indian Health Board estimates the total level of need to be nearly $37 billion.

American Indians are more than twice as likely to get diabetes and six times as likely to get tuberculosis than the average U.S. population. Mental illness, and especially substance abuse, runs high in Indian Country. Native Americans are more likely to commit suicide than any other ethnic or racial group.

Health disparities are particularly harsh in the Northern Plains region. In the Dakotas, average life expectancy among American Indians is 20 years less than among white Americans.

“You do not have to cross an ocean to find Third World health conditions,” said Dr. Donald Warne, a professor of public health at the University of North Dakota and an Oglala Lakota tribesman. “You can find them right here, in the heartland of the United States.”

One particularly grim example is the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. In 2015, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found safety violations at the local IHS hospital so severe that they shut down the emergency room for six months. During this time, at least five patients died en route to other hospitals located sometimes 100 or more miles away. Since then, the situation has only slightly improved.

“The Indian Health Service respects tribal sovereignty and is committed to tribal self-governance,” said IHS spokesman Joshua Barnett. “IHS recognizes that tribal leaders and members are in the best position to understand the health care needs and priorities of their communities.”

Self-governance also allows tribes to be eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, private-sector health insurance, partnerships with larger health systems and even federal grants that are designed for underserved communities — all which can be limited for the IHS.

“Generally speaking, tribally operated health care systems tend to run more efficiently, more effectively and with higher quality of care than IHS-managed systems,” said Warne.

The 155,000-square-foot, 20-bed Cherokee Indian Hospital rests on a small knoll in western North Carolina. (Katja Ridderbusch for KHN)

The hospital serves over 12,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who live on the Qualla Boundary, at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Katja Ridderbusch for KHN)

Money Makes A Difference

The Cherokee Indian Hospital is lucky to be supported by a tribe that’s economically thriving due to gambling revenues, according to Cooper. The Qualla Boundary is home to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. It’s a unique situation, said Indian health expert Warne, as most reservation casinos don’t make huge profits.

The hospital’s annual budget has grown from $20 million to over $80 million within the past 17 years. The largest sources are third-party reimbursements, mostly from Medicaid and Medicare, at $27.4 million, followed by IHS contributions and tribal funding.

In 2012, the hospital decided to implement a new, patient-centered approach called the Nuka System of Care, created by the Southcentral Foundation, a nonprofit health provider owned and led by Alaska Natives. A Cherokee delegation visited a Nuka program to see how it could be tailored to their culture and health needs.

“An integrated approach is more consistent with traditional healing,” Warne said. Since “we don’t separate our physical, mental, spiritual and emotional health the way we do in modern specialized health care.”

At Cherokee Indian Hospital, patients are assigned a team, which typically includes a primary care physician or a family nurse practitioner as well as a nutritionist, a pharmacist and a behavioral health specialist.

Rebuilding their health care prompted the need for the new hospital. Gambling revenue covered most of the costs for the $82 million facility. “The old building was outdated and inefficient,” said Cooper, “a constant reminder of the paternalistically provided Indian Health Service.”

Dr. Richard Bunio, Cherokee Indian Hospital’s clinical director(Katja Ridderbusch for KHN)

The new hospital’s main concourse — called Riverwalk — tells stories from Cherokee legend through graphics of a winding river, fish and turtles inlaid in the terrazzo floor. Signs are written in English and Cherokee. A literal translation of the emergency room sign is “Get better in a hurry,” and the dental suite is “the place that gives you a big smile.”

Patients can receive dialysis, acupuncture, massage therapy and chiropractic care. The ambulance bay, surgical suite and in-patient unit are located out of patients’ view to reduce anxiety and stress.

“The building really is one big strategic tool,” Cooper said.

Nations, the patient visiting recently, remembers the old days when she and her family, many of them dealing with diabetes and some on dialysis, used to wait for hours in the former hospital, a dark space dubbed “the bunker.”

The 46-year-old said that she’d typically see different providers every visit. “And every time I would have to tell my story over and over and over.” Now, she feels somewhat accountable to her care team — and more motivated to make and keep appointments.

“Back then, if my provider had wanted me to see a nutritionist, for example, I would have probably said, ‘Whatever,’ and forgotten about it,” she said.

“We’re trying to build a relationship with our patients,” said Richard Bunio, the Cherokee Indian Hospital’s clinical director who is Canadian and married to a tribe member. He noted that Native Americans generally have suffered a lot of historical trauma, leading to deeply rooted mistrust of mainstream medicine.

By quality measures, including the widely used Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set, the hospital has recently performed in the top quartile for blood pressure control, blood sugar control and several cancer screenings. Also, Cooper added that in the past four years the diabetes rate in the community has leveled.

At Cherokee Indian Hospital, patients are assigned a core team, which typically includes a primary care physician or a family nurse practitioner as well as a case manager and a scheduler. Three core teams share a nutritionist, a pharmacist and a behavioral health specialist. Pictured (left to right) are certified nursing assistant Katelynn Sides, registered nurse Nicole Dyck, family nurse practitioner Tracy Birchfield and licensed practical nurse Crissy Smith.(Katja Ridderbusch for KHN)

Could It Work Everywhere?

It is uncertain if self-governance would work for tribes such as the Rosebud Sioux or the Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where geographic isolation, poverty and a lack of resources make new health care investments difficult.

“It’s a huge challenge, but it’s possible,” said Warne, adding that philanthropy or partnerships with an academic health system might help finance such projects.

Not too long ago, tribal officials from South Dakota visited the Cherokee Indian Hospital. Despite their geographic and socioeconomic challenges, Cooper said, he believes self-determination is essential for their future. “Self-determination works. Self-determination is the right thing. And self-determination is the catalyst to restoring the health of our communities.”

Yet many of the South Dakota tribal leaders remain skeptical. They are concerned that self-determination would let the federal government off the hook from its responsibility to provide health services.

Therefore, the Rosebud Sioux took a different route. Instead of just parting ways with the IHS, they sued the federal government for violating treaties. The case is pending in court.

Must-Reads Of The Week From Brianna Labuskes

Happy Friday! If you want a smile after this long week, be sure to check out today’s Google Doodle. I feel like this is the right crowd to appreciate it.

Now on to what you may have missed!

The courtroom was where much of the action took place this week, from Title X funding to drug prices to opioids. But the biggest spotlight of all was on the fate of the Affordable Care Act.

The latest challenge to the health law was a long-shot case, with legal experts writing off its chances of prevailing at the start. The suit can be perfectly summed up by a question from Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, one of the three judges who heard oral arguments on the case in New Orleans: “If you no longer have the tax, why isn’t it unconstitutional?”

Judge Kurt Engelhardt also asked why the Senate hadn’t sent a lawyer along with the House counsel to convey that the congressional intent had been to keep most of the law. “They’re sort of the 800-pound gorilla that’s not in the room,” he said.

Despite some blunt questioning, though, it’s not clear where the judges will land on the final decision. The case could end up in front of the Supreme Court right in the heart of the 2020 election cycle. Considering that the “we’re the side protecting all those popular health law provisions” argument was at least partly credited for Democrats’ blue wave in the midterms, the timing of the case could have deep political ramifications for Republicans.

The Washington Post: Appeals Judges Question Whether the ACA Can Stand Without Insurance Penalty

Politico: Long-Shot Legal Challenge Could End Obamacare During the 2020 Campaign

If the law is overturned, the far-reaching ripple effects would go far beyond politics. It’s not just that 21 million people could lose health insurance, or that the protections for people with preexisting conditions would go away or that insurers would no longer have to cover young adults on their parents’ plans. So many of the Affordable Care Act’s directives have become ingrained in daily life that it’s as if many people forget they’re tied to that hot-button “Obamacare” topic.

On that list? Calorie counts on menus, lactation rooms at work, transparency for gifts from pharma companies to doctors, YMCA courses that teach diabetes maintenance, etc., etc.

The New York Times: So You Want to Overturn Obamacare. Here Are Some Things That Would Be Headaches.

Also on that list? A wonky provision that grants HHS “innovation” authority. The reason it’s important? President Donald Trump is using that very authority (that’s part of the law he’s trying to get overturned) to make big promises on revolutionizing the kidney care marketplace.

The New York Times: Trump’s Assault on Obamacare Could Undermine His Own Health Initiatives

(Pardon my detour from the courts for a minute, but that’s an impossible-not-to-utilize segue for the other big news of the week, and I’m going to jump on it.)

Trump announced an extremely ambitious plan this week to upend the kidney care world. Currently, the marketplace relies heavily on patients getting care at large dialysis clinics, even though at-home options are both safe and cost-effective. But those big chains can pull in $24 billion a year in revenue, so I somehow doubt that they’re going to go gently into that good night. Another part of the plan would incentivize kidney donations with reimbursements for lost wages and child care to try to address the country’s shortages. (And a special shoutout to Politico for the scoop on the plan.)

The New York Times: Trump Proposes Ways to Improve Care for Kidney Disease and Increase Transplants

Politico: Trump Aims to Shake Up Kidney Care Market

And now back to our court news: Trump’s strategy to curb drug prices sustained the first of two significant blows this week when a federal judge ruled that the administration can’t force companies to put prices in their TV ads. Judge Amit Mehta dodged the tricky First Amendment debate and instead focused on HHS’ authority (or lack thereof, really) to enforce such a rule. His ruling was, essentially: Hey, high drug prices are the pits and this might be an effective tool. But HHS can’t do more than Congress has authorized.

The New York Times: Judge Blocks Trump Rule Requiring Drug Companies to List Prices in TV Ads

The second punch came Friday when the administration pulled the plug on a signature proposal to eliminate drug rebates for pharmacy benefit managers (the target du jour for ire over high prices). Policy experts had worried the rule would lead to higher premiums for Medicare beneficiaries. Insurers and PBMs were popping the champagne over the announcement, while the general consensus is that pharma companies should now be braced for (an even bigger) storm headed their way.

Stat: After Trump Pulled the Plug on Rebates, His Options to Reduce Drug Prices Narrow. And He May Need Congress


The 2020 Democratic candidates were busy bees this week:

— Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced an immigration plan that would include the creation of a DOJ task force to investigate complaints of abuse and neglect from detainees.

Politico: Elizabeth Warren Takes on Trump With Immigration Overhaul

— Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) wants to take on the epidemic of outrageous rape kit backlogs. The kits can sometimes sit in police departments, which are strained for resources, for years. Harris has some bona fide experience to back up her plan. When she was California’s attorney general, her Rapid DNA Service team said it cleared all 1,300 untested rape kits in the state’s backlog in one year and earned national recognition and grants for its efforts.

USA Today: Kamala Harris: Rape Kit Backlog Can Be Cleared at Cost of Trump Golf Trips

— Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) released a proposal to tackle a wide range of problems that affect Americans’ seniors, from high drug costs to Alzheimer’s research to long-term care issues.

Politico: How Amy Klobuchar Would Improve Care for Seniors

— And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hopping on a bus to Canada with a group of Americans in search of cheaper insulin. This isn’t his first time embarking on such a trip. Twenty years ago, he went north with a group of breast cancer patients with a similar goal. (That two-decade gap between the trips speaks volumes, doesn’t it?)

CNN: Bernie Sanders to Join People With Type 1 Diabetes on Canada Trip for Cheaper Insulin

As we’ve seen in recent weeks, nearly all the Democratic candidates support the idea of providing health care to people who are in the country illegally. But what exactly would that entail? For one, it would place the U.S. even further left of progressive countries who already have universal health care. Most of them have at least some restrictions in place. But experts say that not only in the long run could providing care for them save money — immigrants in the country without legal permission tend to be young and relatively healthy and underuse available care.

The New York Times: What Would Giving Health Care to Undocumented Immigrants Mean?

Meanwhile, California is charging forward to become the first state in the country to offer Medicaid coverage to residents below the age of 26, regardless of their immigration status.

The Associated Press: California OKs Benefits to Immigrants In Country Illegally


Speaking of Medicaid, New Hampshire pumped the brakes on its new work requirements following reports that more than 17,000 people (yes, you read that right) would be found to be noncompliant with the rules after its first month. The state has been making the rounds with mailings, phone calls and even a door-knocking campaign, but officials still suggest the problem is that most people aren’t aware they need to report their hours. The experience mirrors Arkansas’ (almost down to the exact number of people who would be booted) and highlights the inherent obstacles states face when putting such rules in place.

Modern Healthcare: New Hampshire Delays Its Medicaid Work Requirement


A mother whose 19-month-old daughter died after being detained by ICE spoke at a House hearing this week about reports of the inhumane conditions at the facilities. “The world should know what happened,” Yazmin Juárez said during deeply emotional testimony. The name of the hearing — “Kids in Cages: Inhumane Treatment at the Border” — set the tone and reflected the state of affairs on Capitol Hill over the issue.

The Washington Post: ‘Kids in Cages’: House Hearing Examines Immigration Detention As Democrats Push for More Information


About 20% of the nation’s hospice facilities have safety lapses that are serious enough to endanger patients. What does that look like, beyond the dry terminology of an inspector general’s report? Gangrene so bad that a patient’s leg needed to be amputated; maggots burrowing near wound openings; and unnoticed sexual assault. But the report highlights another issue: There’s not much CMS can do about all of it. It would take an act of Congress to give CMS the power to fine the industry’s bad actors.

NPR: Roughly 20% of U.S. Hospice Programs Cited for Serious Deficiencies, Inspectors Say


In the miscellaneous file for the week:

• There are lots of voices in the abortion wars these days. Many of them, though, are from white leaders — on both sides of the issue — while the unique nuances and challenges that black communities face are missing from the debate. For women of color, race is tied to abortion in a way that white advocates rarely have to contend with.

The New York Times: When ‘Black Lives Matter’ Is Invoked in the Abortion Debate

•  An alleged mix-up at a fertility clinic that resulted in a woman having two babies who were not related to either her or each other highlights the real pitfalls of human error and advanced medicine.

USA Today: IVF Couple Sues California Clinic, Alleges Babies Weren’t DNA Match

• On paper, as medical aid-in-dying laws continue to pass across the country, more Americans are gaining control over how they end their lives. The reality looks a lot different, though.

The New York Times: Aid in Dying Soon Will Be Available to More Americans. Few Will Choose It.

• A Disney Channel star’s death this week highlighted the dangers of epilepsy-linked sleep deaths. Although it is rare, SUDEP is responsible for more deaths than SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and yet few people have heard of it.

CNN: Cameron Boyce’s Death: How Seizures Can Kill People With Epilepsy

• A new Secret Service report on mass violence incidents reveals that two-thirds of perpetrators had made threats before the attacks.

CNN: A New Report on Mass Attacks in the US Shows Common Traits Among Assailants

• A hospital in Ohio fired 23 employees in the wake of murder charges against one of its doctors in a case related to patients’ painkiller-linked deaths. There are a lot of issues here, but of particular note is how systemic such problems can become. One medical professional might be the root problem, but, at some point, that infection can spread to many interlocking parts within a health system.

The New York Times: Hospital C.E.O. Resigns and 23 Employees Are Fired After Ohio Doctor Is Charged in Murders


And, as election season kicks up, I really don’t blame any of the candidates for grabbing the Purell. Have a great weekend!