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Helping Native Americans Get Health Care

Trevor Wahwassuck plays in the children's waiting area of the Potawatomi Health Center.
Kelley Weiss
Trevor Wahwassuck plays in the children's waiting area of the Potawatomi Health Center.

By Kelley Weiss


Kansas City, MO – Native Americans living on the Potawatomi reservation north of Topeka and in Kansas City can face roadblocks in getting healthcare. To help make it easier to see a doctor the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe opened a new health center last fall. And, back in the city free health clinics are trying to improve urban Indian's access to care. Click here for more photos.KCUR's Kelley Weiss reports.

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Driving through the sprawling 11-square-mile Prairie Band Potawatomi Reservation rolling hills and open skies frame the land. But, on one side of the reservation an expansive complex that houses the tribe's gaming commission and casino juts out from the landscape.

Tracy Stanhoff, Potawatomi Tribal Chair, says the casino is the economic engine driving the reservation. She says money from the Prairie Band Harrah's casino has helped fund social services.

Tracy Stanhoff: "People think that it's just about casinos, and money and entertainment. But it really means much more to our people than that. It provides us with something that we never had access to before, which is resources to provide for our own people and self-reliance."

In fact, the tribe used $6 million in casino revenues to build the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation Health Center on the reservation, a primary care clinic with social services, a pharmacy and dental care. The center does not charge tribal members or other Native American Indians for services.

John Daugherty, is the director for the Oklahoma area Indian Health Services. That area includes 42 tribes in Oklahoma, Texas and the four in Kansas. He says Indian Health Services pays for the operating budget of the Potawatomi facility - about $4 million a year - but the tribe paid for the building. Splitting the costs, he says, can give tribes more control. He says he expects more tribes to spend their own money and share costs with the government in the future.

Prairie Band Potawatomie Nation Health Center in Mayetta Kansas. Kelley Weiss

Brenda McClure works at the Nation Station across the street from the Harrah's casino. McClure says without the casino, her reservation would not have paved roads and the social services they now enjoy. Before the casino money was available McClure says she had to go to the smaller, older and understaffed Holton Indian Health Services clinic for care. But, she says even then it was a challenge because of the rough, dirt roads running throughout the reservation.

Brenda McClure: "We always had to go to Holton. Now if it was really bad out we had to suffer or take our chances and go, like if it was snowy or really rainy. Now it's just like five or six miles down the road."

At the health center Prairie Band Potawatomi Indian and nurse manager Brenda Catron, says since the new facility opened, with a large naturally lit waiting area and Native American art lining the walls, she's seen a 50 percent increase in patient visits.

Brenda Catron: "We are seeing new patients every day, our patient load has increased. The need is there."

Catron says Native Americans have the most health problems of any other ethnic group. They deal with a variety of issues - heart disease, diabetes and drug and alcohol addiction.

One patient visiting the clinic for a regular check-up, Natalie, a Choctaw from Topeka, says she drives the 25 miles to the clinic because it's good service and free. She says she likes that the center is not only a health clinic but has alcohol and drug rehab services, social workers on hand and a pharmacy too.

Natalie: "And the fact that it's here but you also have the social services department here as well, you know it's kind of a one-stop place, that's convenient for it."

Natalie did not want to give her last name to protect her privacy. Catron, says many patients coming through the clinic can be reluctant to discuss their ailments.

Brenda Catron: "Native American Indian culture itself has a lot of private cultural aspects. Each tribe has their own kind of culture for their likes and dislikes and what they may or may not talk about."

These cultural barriers, Catron says, can prevent people from getting needed care - and that, she says, is why it's so important to have a clinic built by the tribe and staffed with tribal members.

Back in the city Native Americans can face even more problems in accessing health care, says Jerry Briscoe a research associate at the University of Kansas Preventive Medicine and Public Health department. Briscoe is Prairie Band Potawatomi and helps urban Indians access health care. He says there are about 20,000 Native Americans living in the Kansas City area. Although there are many free health clinics around the city he says many Indians do not use their services.

Jerry Briscoe: "What I hear is, we don't see faces that look like ours. We're reluctant to go in because of how we're treated. If you're going to have to ask for some kind of services, where you're not the majority, so to speak, you're going to have some issues."

Briscoe says some of the clinics are doing cultural training to understand Native American needs and make them feel respected. He says KU is also working with the Potawatomi Health Center on a smoking cessation program as well doing other cancer prevention work in the community.

In the meantime, Briscoe says clinics and community leaders need to continue to reach out to Native Americans and give education on the importance of prevention and going to the doctor.

Funding for health care coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City.

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