- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 27, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Tribal leaders from Montana and Wyoming are due to testify during a U.S. Senate committee field hearing Tuesday on the federal government’s troubled health program for American Indians.

Representatives of eight tribes were scheduled to appear.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which has jurisdiction over federal government dealings with 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

The Democrat is holding the hearing after receiving complaints from the Crow Tribe and others about poor and delayed health care provided by the Indian Health Service.

“It’s more than just Crow,” Tester said. “Crow has been the most outspoken on it, because their problems have been more severe than anyone else’s - a lack of staff, not really getting action they need. We’re going to find out more about this at the hearing and what all the problems are.”

The life expectancy for Native American women in Montana is 62 years, compared to 82 years for white women. Native men have a life expectancy of 56 years, versus 75 years for white men, according to the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Indian Health Service acting director Yvette Roubideaux also is scheduled to appear.

Her office declined to comment ahead of the hearing. But at a speech last month before the National Indian Health Board, Roubideaux acknowledged that improvements were needed at the agency, which has a $4.4 billion annual budget. She said internal reforms are underway.

Tester and U.S. Sen. John Walsh earlier this month asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to examine problems at the agency’s area office in Billings.

Former Indian Affairs Chairman Byron Dorgan of North Dakota conducted a similar investigation in 2010. Dorgan found that a “chronic state of crisis” plagued health care services for American Indians. Problems included a lack of providers, hospitals at risk of losing their accreditation, improperly licensed staff and missing or stolen narcotics.