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Agreement reached on new B.C. First Nations health plan

First Nations living in British Columbia will soon have much of their healthcare delivered to them by a separate health authority, following an agreement struck today between the B.C. First Nations Health Council and provincial and federal health ministries.

The new "framework agreement" will establish an independent First Nations Health Authority that will take over on-reserve healthcare programs now being administered by the federal government.

Today's agreement results from a 2007 plan signed by the First Nations Leadership Council and the governments of Canada and B.C., which called for the development of a separate healthcare governing body for First Nations within three years.

"This is truly a historic day for First Nations people in British Columbia," says Joe Gallagher, C.E.O. of the First Nation Heath Council. "This health plan recognizes that First Nations people should be involved in the governance of their own health."

According to Gallagher, the new system will grant health administrators more flexibility to design programs that are culturally sensitive and catered to local health conditions.

The framework agreement that was signed today also paves the way for the creation of an advisory board, which will provide technical advise to the Health Authority, and an independent political advocacy group with a specific focus on First Nations health issues.

"This is not going to create a separate system in any sort of way but it will create services that are more tailored to meeting the health needs of First Nations," says Lori DeLuca, public affairs officer for the B.C. Ministry of Health.

The creation of the B.C. First Nations Health Authority marks the first time that the Canadian federal government has devolved healthcare delivery responsibilities to a First Nations group.

Gallagher hopes that today's agreement will provide a template for provinces across the country to follow.

"Every province has this issue in which the provincial health system and those put in place by the federal government for First Nations communities just don't work well together," he says. "We have an opportunity to demonstrate value in this kind of arrangement -- to find new and innovative ways to deliver health services and to redefine what a health model should look like."

Ben Christopher reports for The Tyee.

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