Treatment Center Opening Underscores UnitedHealth Group’s Commitment to Care in Native American Communities

August 19, 2019
american indian treatment center

Nearly a year after a groundbreaking ceremony to create a substance-abuse treatment center on the Spirit Lake Reservation at Cankdeska Cikana Community College (CCCC) in Fort Totten, N.D., the facility opened its doors.

Tiospaye Okciyapi Tipi – which translates to “home or place for families helping families” – celebrated its opening on Aug. 6, 2019. The effort, fueled by heightened concern around drug and alcohol abuse in the Spirit Lake community, was funded by a three-year, $1.2 million grant from the United Health Foundation to CCCC. The college collaborated with the Spirit Lake Recovery & Wellness Program to renovate a former group home into a 15-bed residential substance abuse treatment center.

The opening represents the most recent of several endeavors by UnitedHealth Group to raise both access to and quality of care in Native American communities.

The Challenge

The overall average vacancy rate for physicians, nurses and other care providers across eight geographical areas in Indian Country is about 25 percent, according to figures shared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Several factors contribute to this situation:

  • Less than 1 percent of all medical school enrollees identify as Native American, with 50 percent of medical colleges in the U.S. reporting that no Native American students enrolled in 2018-2019, data from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reveals.
  • In 2018, only 146 American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students nationwide earned medical degrees out of 19,553 graduates.

That means that not only is there a shortage of care providers to treat the current communities, but also there’s a scarcity of Native American providers, raising the need to prioritize the cultural competency of health care workforces throughout Indian Country.

Elevating the Conversation

UnitedHealth Group is working to address health care issues in Native American communities by elevating conversations within the communities and nationally to help reach Native American students at a younger age. In addition to the opening of Tiospaye Okciyapi Tipi, UnitedHealthcare and Optum – alongside the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP) and AAMC – last year organized a summit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. The gathering brought together nearly 100 thought leaders to discuss populating the Native health care workforce with Native American physicians.

Following the summit, UnitedHealthcare developed a white paper that outlined barriers and recommendations, and identified several stakeholders key to continuing the conversation around enhancing medical education opportunities for Native Americans.

Support for Students

Additionally, the United Health Foundation, in partnership with the American Indian College Fund, last fall awarded several Native American North Dakota college students with scholarships through the United Health Foundation Tribal Wellness Scholarship Program. Funded through a $360,000 grant from the United Health Foundation in May 2018, the program encourages Native American college students to seek careers as mental health professionals with a goal of helping their communities recover from substance use disorder in a way that honors their tribal heritage and traditions. The program also includes mentoring, academic support, job training and research opportunities.

And since 2007, the United Health Foundation has helped to promote cultural competency and diversity in the health care workforce through its Diverse Scholars Initiative (DSI). Since its inception, the Foundation has provided more than $20 million in funding to support nearly 2,600 scholarships. DSI also provides mentor and internship programs along with other academic and professional development services.  In partnership with the American Indian College Fund, the program currently supports 29 Native American students.