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Rosebud Woman Nominated To Lead IHS
by Rob Capriccioso - Indian Country Today staff
credits: Photo courtesy University of Arizona

WASHINGTON – Rosebud Sioux tribal member Yvette Roubideaux, 46, was nominated March 23 by President Barack Obama to direct the IHS. If confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first American Indian woman to ever lead the agency.

Obama said in a statement that he has confidence Roubideaux, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, will be an effective advocate.

A White House release noted that she has conducted extensive research on American Indian health issues, with a special focus on diabetes in American Indian and Alaska Native communities and American Indian health policy.

Roubideaux has regularly offered input on diabetes-related issues, writing in a 2007 column about her belief in the importance of supporting the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.

“Most people know about all the new diabetes prevention activities in their communities – fun runs, cooking classes, health fairs or new exercise equipment at the wellness or community centers,” she wrote.

“Some notice they are getting newer medications, meters to check their blood glucose and a lot more attention in the clinic. But few associate these new activities and services with the actual name of the congressional funding that led to their creation: the Special Diabetes Program for Indians.”

In July, when the program was reauthorized through Sept. 2011, she said in an interview with ICT that “[t]he reauthorization of SDPI is critical for us to continue to be able to offer all of the progress that’s been made since the funding started 10 years ago.”

She noted, however, that the program was still being funded at the same level, $150 million, as when it was reauthorized in 2002.

“It’s clearly not enough money,” she said. “And the problem of diabetes isn’t solved very easily.

She stated in a February interview that the rate of heart disease in American Indians has grown rapidly as Indians are living longer, and the rates of diabetes and obesity have skyrocketed.

Not one to shy away from making her views known, Roubideaux has also been a critic of the agency she has been nominated to lead.

“My first encounters with the health care system were as a patient in the Indian Health Service,” she testified before Congress nearly a decade ago. “The IHS is severely underfunded and understaffed, and I often waited four to six hours to see a doctor.”

She later worked for IHS to help improve the system from the inside, serving as a medical officer and clinical director on the San Carlos Indian Reservation and in the Gila River Indian Community.

Roubideaux’s abundant familiarity of the health needs of American Indians have helped her become a staunch advocate for the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. If confirmed to the IHS leadership position, many tribal leaders expect her to urge Congress to pass the long-stalled bill, for which Obama has expressed strong support.

Roubideaux currently serves as the co-director of the Coordinating Center for the Special Diabetes Program for Indians Competitive Demonstration Projects, a program implementing diabetes prevention and cardiovascular disease prevention activities in 66 American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

She also serves as director of programs associated with the University of Arizona that focus on recruiting American Indian and Alaska Native students into health and research professions.

She received her medical degree from Harvard Medical School and her master’s degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Roubideaux, who served on Obama’s transition team, is no stranger to the national political scene and its connections to Indian health. She was appointed to the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Minority Health from 2000-2002. From 1999-2000, she served as president of the Association of American Indian Physicians.

If confirmed, she will start serving as head of IHS at a time when the Obama administration and Congress are beginning to account for long shortfalls in the agency’s budget.

As part of the February federal stimulus law, the agency is on schedule to receive $500 million to support the construction and modernization of IHS health facilities and strengthen the use of health information technology at those facilities.

The law calls for IHS to spend $227 million for health facilities construction, $100 million in maintenance and improvements, $85 million for health information technology, $68 million for sanitation facilities construction, $20 million for health equipment and will help improve health care in Indian country.

Obama has also outlined a first budget that will include more than $4 billion for IHS – a substantial increase over previous years.

Roubideaux would replace Robert McSwain, a member of the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians who was a George W. Bush appointee. He was sworn in just last May.

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