updated 7/20/2004 11:47:26 AM ET 2004-07-20T15:47:26

The government’s top health official Monday pledged more federal funding for health care for the Navajo Nation, where death rates outpace national averages for adults and children — including those related to alcohol, diabetes, TB and influenza.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson began a two-day visit to the largest Indian reservation in the country with a meeting with Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., and a speech to the 88-member Navajo Nation Council.

He said he would press for more funding despite a budget strained by the war on terrorism and fighting in Iraq.

“The Navajo Nation has got a tremendous history and I want to make sure the future is even better, even brighter than it was ever intended, ever expected,” Thompson told the council.

Thompson said his visit would enable him to be an advocate for the tribe as the federal health budget winds its way through Congress. He also pointed to grants from his department — including one that would fund a mentoring program for children whose parents are incarcerated — and spoke about more funding for sanitation improvements.

“I’m committed — and passionately so — to the success of these programs because I know that the health and welfare of the Navajo people depend upon them,” he said.

Navajo leaders have been anticipating Thompson’s visit since the Bush administration took office. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, scuttled initial plans; a trip scheduled in April was canceled.

Area health officials say services need to be expanded, health facilities need to be updated and the public health system that tracks diseases needs improvement.

However, Democratic state Rep. Jack Jackson Jr. charged Thompson’s department has ignored the needs of Indians, and that the Bush administration has failed to provide adequate funding for their education, housing or health.

“One quick election-year visit to view and tour the reservation does not make up for three years of neglect by this administration,” he said.

Council Delegate Evelyn Acothley, vice chairwoman of the council’s health and social services committee, noted the tribe’s ongoing battles against diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism and other illnesses.

“People describe it as a Third World nation, and in fact, that’s true,” said Alice W. Benally of Crownpoint, N.M., a council delegate. “Many of our homes don’t have any electricity, they don’t have water or plumbing.”

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