Sanford Health creates Native American health office

By Dirk Lammers
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) August 2010

The largest hospital system in the Dakotas is launching a new effort to reach out to residents of the region’s Native American reservations, hospital officials announced last week.

Leading Sanford Health’s new Office of Native American Health will be Dr. Donald Warne, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe from Pine Ridge. He will coordinate activities among the hospital system, the federal Indian Health Service and the 28 tribes within Sanford’s coverage region, which spans South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska, said Mark Johnston, a Sanford Health vice president.

“It’s an important step to try to improve the health and welfare of the folks on different reservations in Sanford Health’s service area,” Johnston said last week.

Warne most recently served as head of the Aberdeen Area Tribal Chairmen’s Health Board, a Rapid City-based organization that acts as a liaison between Native Americans and the federal Indian Health Service. He also is an instructor at Arizona State University’s law school, where he teaches Native American health policy.

He said the new effort will help address health disparities between Native Americans and other residents.

“Diabetes and related conditions seem to occur at a much higher rate in Native American communities, particularly here in the Northern Plains,” Warne said. “With high rates of diabetes, we also see high rates of things like kidney failure and subsequent needs for locally available dialysis services.”

Warne met with members of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge on one day to discuss a collaboration between tribal communities, Sanford and Novo Nordisk, a Diabetes pharmaceutical company. A day later, he met with residents of the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota about their needs for dialysis.

Sanford does not have clinics or hospitals on reservations, but many of its facilities serve Native American patients, Johnston said.

Sanford in June announced it would establish a digital mammography center in Chamberlain to help underserved women in central South Dakota, including those on the nearby Crow Creek and Lower Brule reservations. It is being funded with a $489,300 grant over three years from the charitable trust established by the late hotel and real estate baroness Leona Helmsley.

The Sanford Health Network also will provide about $372,000 for a 16-passenger van that will travel to Native American reservations and communities in remote areas in a three-county area, providing transportation for women to and from the digital mammography facility.

As part of treaties signed by the Sioux Nation in the late 1800s, the federal government agreed to provide medical care on Native American reservations in return for land and minerial rights.

The government-run Indian Health Service today runs hospitals and clinics on most reservations. But critics long have complained of insufficient financial support that has led to constant turnover among doctors and nurses, understaffed hospitals, sparse specialty care and long waits to see a doctor.

Sanford Health was created last year when Sioux Falls-based Sanford and Fargo, N.D.-based MeritCare merged. The system now employs 17,000 health care professionals working in more than 75 communities across the United States.