OPINION: New Cherokee Health Center will transform health care for generations
The largest tribal outpatient health facility in America is now open in Tahlequah. We gathered recently to dedicate the 470,000-square-foot facility. It was a transformational moment in the Cherokee Nation’s history.
The facility – which includes more than 240 exam rooms, two MRI machines, an ambulatory surgery center, 34 dental chairs, full-service optometry and many specialty health services – will have a generational impact on health care in the CN and all of northeast Oklahoma.
The facility also symbolizes the fulfillment of a long-standing promise.
Enshrined in treaties, set forth in statutes and embodied in court decisions is a solemn promise that, as reparation for the hardship and dispossession borne by our ancestors at the hands of the United States, this country would provide for the health and welfare of tribal citizens in perpetuity. We, as Indian nations, have struggled for decades with the United States’ failures to adequately fulfill that obligation.
More recently, we have leveraged economic success to begin to take care of our own. During Principal Chief Bill John Baker’s time in office, he harnessed the prosperity of our businesses to invest in new and expanded health centers across the CN.
The CN is one of the great success stories in Indian Country. We have an immense financial impact in Oklahoma. However, we are not in business just to be in business. We exist to give our 380,000 citizens and all the residents of northeast Oklahoma a chance at a better life. And a better life begins with better health care.
In the beginning of this project, before the ground was broken or an architectural plan was drawn, we challenged the United States to live up to its promise to provide the kind of health care the Cherokee people need and deserve. I was part of those conversations, as the tribe confronted the government of the United States with the stark reality that it was more than $2 billion behind in building new health facilities in Indian Country, including the CN.
We questioned why the federal government had shut down one of the most successful programs in the history of the Indian Health Service, the joint venture construction program. We successfully lobbied our friends, like U.S. Reps. Tom Cole and Betty McCollum, to have them reopen the IHS joint venture effort.
We made the case that the United States can best fulfill its obligation by allowing the Cherokee people to take care of the Cherokee people. We can deliver better, more effective and more efficient health care. We contributed more than $250 million of our own dollars to build this world-class facility that will help ease the burden of the 1.3 million patient visits our health care system sees annually.
The federal government will keep its promise to pay for the operating cost, which will be about $100 million per year over the building’s lifespan. More than 850 new health care professionals and support staff will bring new and enhanced medical services to our community.
This federal-tribal partnership, the largest joint-venture project in IHS history, saves money and helps ease the significant construction backlog. These efforts will show all of Indian Country a new path forward.
Generations ago, our ancestors negotiated federal treaties under the most difficult circumstances. Even then, they believed that the health and welfare of their fellow Cherokees were paramount. They dreamed that, through the treaties, they could ensure the well-being of their descendants.
I know they would be proud to see what our tribe has achieved today. Cherokees will use this facility to live healthier, better lives. Hundreds of Cherokees will earn an excellent living for their families by working in this facility. Beyond that, we will have the simple yet deep satisfaction of knowing that Cherokees are taking care of Cherokees.