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JR LaPlante wants to improve tribal and reservation health care

By Peter Carrels

Moments after stepping to the podium at the third annual Distinguished Lecture in Native American Health, JR LaPlante asked his audience to contemplate a critical and challenging subject. “We need to discuss and work on South Dakota’s historical difficulties in dealing with Native Americans,” he announced. These problems, he added, extend beyond health care, but they certainly include health care.

LaPlante, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe and director of tribal relations at Avera Health, believes that former South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson’s “Year of Reconciliation” (declared in 1990) helped advance the cause of tribal relations in South Dakota. “A groundwork was laid because of that,” said LaPlante. “South Dakota is getting better, but lots of inequalities remain.”

LaPlante mentioned ongoing issues restricting Native American voting opportunities on reservations as an example of a serious matter needing attention. “There is plenty of room for improvement in many areas,” he said. “It is important we all work on these collectively.”

According to LaPlante, progress on topics and issues relevant to the relationship of Native Americans and non-Native Americans can be achieved if we first focus on common goals and common ground. “No where do I see more common ground,” he emphasized, “than in the area of health care.

“We know how difficult it is to attract health care professionals to South Dakota,” LaPlante said. “Imagine how difficult it is to attract health professionals to our remote reservations?”

He used a poignant example to illustrate the disparities in health care and health dividing Native Americans and non-Native Americans. “The median life expectancy age for a non-Native American is approximately 81 years old,” he said. “For Native Americans the median life expectancy age is 58 years old.”

To address the disparities and inequalities afflicting Native Americans, explained LaPlante, we need to look first to the nation’s professional class, including those in such occupations as law and medicine. “We expect our professionals to provide leadership,” LaPlante said. Medical students, he added, must begin to understand their future role in providing leadership and service to the Native American community.

The demographic composition of the medical school in South Dakota, said LaPlante, should reflect the population proportions in the state. “Native Americans comprise about 10 percent of the state’s population,” he pointed out. “That’s the percentage they should be at in the medical school’s overall enrollment.” LaPlante acknowledged that there are excellent programs underway in the medical school to attract more Native American students.

He told a story about physicians from South Dakota traveling overseas to other continents to donate health care to residents in developing nations. “Our reservations and the Indian people here in South Dakota suffer from Third World health care,” he challenged. “It’s in our own backyard. We also need to understand that those problems aren’t just their problems. Those are problems for all of us.”