Medicare and Medicaid:

CMS and State Efforts to Interact with the Indian Health Service and Indian Tribes

GAO-08-724: Published: Jul 11, 2008. Publicly Released: Aug 7, 2008.

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By law, facilities funded by the Indian Health Service (IHS) may retain reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid without an offsetting reduction in funding. Ensuring that IHS-funded facilities enroll individuals in--and obtain reimbursement from--Medicare and Medicaid can provide an important means of expanding the funding for health care services for the population served by IHS. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that administers Medicare and oversees states' Medicaid programs, is required by Executive Order and HHS policy to consult with Indian tribes on policies that have tribal implications. This requirement is in recognition of the unique government-to-government relationship between the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes and the federal government. GAO was asked to (1) describe interactions between CMS and IHS, (2) examine mechanisms CMS uses to interact and consult with Indian tribes, (3) examine mechanisms that selected states' Medicaid programs use to interact and consult with Indian tribes, and (4) identify barriers to Medicare and Medicaid enrollment and efforts to help eligible American Indians and Alaska Natives apply for and enroll in these programs. GAO reviewed documents, interviewed federal and state officials, and visited a judgmental sample of Indian tribes and IHS-funded facilities in six states.

CMS and IHS have interacted to (1) provide support to IHS-funded facilities and tribes in their access to Medicare and Medicaid and (2) address broader policy and regulatory concerns regarding these programs. Their interactions to provide support have included education and technical assistance; the agencies also have interacted to obtain input from tribal representatives on program operations. On broader policy and regulatory concerns, CMS and IHS have worked on policy initiatives aimed at ensuring that existing health care policies meet the needs of IHS-funded facilities and the populations they serve. CMS and IHS have had mixed success identifying whether proposed CMS regulatory changes would affect IHS-funded facilities or their populations and thus warrant IHS review. CMS has been working to improve its identification of such regulations. CMS has used two key mechanisms--tribal liaisons and an advisory board--to interact with representatives from Indian tribes, and it has relied primarily on annual regional sessions sponsored by HHS as its mechanism to consult with Indian tribes. Tribal liaisons in CMS's central and regional offices generally served as the point of contact for tribal representatives. CMS's tribal advisory board, which is meant to complement but not replace consultation, has provided the agency with advice on policies affecting the delivery of health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives. CMS has used annual HHS regional consultation sessions as the primary basis for consulting with Indian tribes. However, consulting with tribes is an inherently difficult task, in part because of the variation in tribes' size, location, and economic status. Further, these HHS regional sessions--which generally lasted 1 to 2 days and covered all HHS programs--have offered limited time for consultation and discussion. The six state Medicaid programs we reviewed have used at least one of three mechanisms--tribal liaisons, advisory boards, and regular meetings--to interact and consult with Indian tribes. Five of the six states reported having policies in place that governed the interactions between the state's Medicaid program and Indian tribes, with most of these policies establishing guidelines for how consultation should be conducted. Five states reported consulting with tribes about changes to their Medicaid programs. American Indians and Alaska Natives have faced several barriers to Medicare and Medicaid enrollment despite efforts to assist them with the application process. Many of these barriers are similar to those experienced by other populations, such as transportation and financial barriers. To help eligible American Indians and Alaska Natives enroll in Medicare and Medicaid, almost all of the IHS-funded facilities we visited had staff who assisted patients with the application process, including helping them complete and submit applications, and collecting required documentation. In commenting on a draft of this report, CMS noted that it was appreciative of GAO's review of CMS activities related to interactions with IHS and tribes.

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