An American Indian health care bill that would, among other things, fund a study to test the idea of treating the Navajo Nation as a state for Medicaid delivery, passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee this week.

"Medicaid relies heavily on state governments for health care delivery to the disadvantaged. Because the Navajo Nation overlaps multiple states, this study would determine whether the Navajos could operate a Medicaid program for its own people," U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, who co-sponsored the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, said in a press release.

The bill would reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement act, which hasn't been reauthorized since its original passage in 1991. It would pump money into federal health care delivery systems on American Indian land throughout the country.

The measure would also authorize a health care delivery demonstration project at the Mescalero Apache reservation, one of five priority service units and part of a series of demonstration projects around the country.

"Our hope is that the demonstration projects will identify how to cut through the red tape and how health care facilities can be improved or expanded," Domenici said in the release.

The need for adequate health care is dire on Indian reservations across the country, including Navajo land, Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie said.

"This is perhaps one of most significant pieces of legislation in place that provides health care and facilities for Native people," he said. "We are very adamant about maintaining the health care act in place because to us it represents the promise kept under the treaty of 1868."

Yazzie said he would "feel comfortable" with the current version of the bill.

"The rate of need is certainly out-pacing the level of resources that are provided, simply because of our growing population and the (increase) in diabetes and other ailments we didn't use to have on such a wide scale," Yazzie said. "At the same time, that's exacerbated by the fact that the level of funding for adequate health care in Indian country is consistently underfunded."

Lindsay Whitehurst: lwhitehurst@daily-times.com