Each year, the first full week of April marks National Public Health Week. During this time, people gather to recognize contributions to public health and highlight issues that are important to improving health across the country.
This year’s theme is “Public Health: Start Here,” focusing on being proactive about health and safety. From the beginning of life (maternal health), to before disaster strikes (emergency preparedness), National Public Health Week is putting a spotlight on healthy beginnings. Relatedly, we have reported on underserved populations, including American Indians and Alaska Natives, who face challenges and unique health care needs that make it difficult for them to take a proactive role in their overall health.
Some challenges or barriers to health care for these groups include:
- living in remote areas that may be far away from health care providers;
- higher rates of chronic diseases compared with the rest of the U.S. population; and
- significant mental health concerns, including higher than average suicide rates among young people and young adults.
The Indian Health Service (IHS) is responsible for providing health care to Native Americans and Alaska Natives through a system of health care facilities and contract care. We have identified multiple ways to improve this care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. These include:
- increasing enrollment rates for many Native Americans and Alaska Natives who are potentially eligible for either expanded or new coverage options under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and examining ways to increase communication and outreach between agency staff and tribal leaders about these options;
- improving the use of contract health services by increasing the timeliness of provider payments;
- improving coordination and collaboration between IHS and other public programs, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, to improve the health status of certain groups within the population, such as Native American veterans;
- improving facilities’ responses for sexual assault and domestic violence victims and efforts to provide, standardize, and sustain the provision of medical forensic services; and
- reducing the variation in the availability of prevention and treatment services for HIV/AIDS.
Perhaps some of these ideas can help foster healthy new beginnings for these underserved populations.