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The communication lines were open and ideas were flowing Saturday as tribal leaders from across the region wrapped up the Third Annual Western Summit on Indian Health Care.

Extending that dialogue to include federal, state and county government officials and encouraging more discussion between tribes are the challenges these leaders will face in the coming year, conference organizers told them.Communicating the health care needs of American Indians must be given high priority as congressional budget cuts loom on the horizon, they said.

"It's important that we get to those folks who don't understand who Indian people are and educate them," said Lee Acebado, Indian liaison for the Arizona Department of Health. "We need to rethink how we communicate. . . . We can still maintain our culture and our identity as a people, but we need to learn the rules of the game and make it work for us."

That includes lobbying Congress and state legislators, inviting government officials to observe conditions on reservations and voting, he said.

About 120 tribal leaders from as far away as Alaska and Oklahoma gathered at the Airport Hilton for the three-day conference to develop solutions to the many challenges facing Indian health care - not the least of which are proposed federal spending cuts. Delegates to the summit supported a resolution condemning Senate-proposed cuts in 1996 Interior Department appropriations for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal government programs. The resolution asks that President Clinton veto the bill.

Acebado said because budget cuts are possible it is even more important now that tribes work together and reach consensus on health care and other issues. He said several Arizona tribes lost available funding recently because they took too long to decide how to use the money.

Considerable discussion was also given to tribal relationships with state governments and to the collection and sharing of information between tribes.

Judy Edwards, Indian liaison for the Utah Department of Health, said the summit provided an opportunity for tribal leaders to network and share ideas. But its most significant achievement, she said, was a report outlining the issues and recommendations put forth during the conference. The report will be sent to everyone who attended the summit.

"It's just a number of ideas put together in a big bowl of spaghetti," Michael Chavez, of New Mexico's Sandia Pueblo, said of the report. "It's food for thought."

The report suggests, among other things, that tribes consider health issues as top priorities; become involved in health care reform at the state level; enter tribal-state compacts for the delivery of health care services; establish teams of "Indian Country spokespersons" in every state; initiate voter registration drives; try to eliminate the duplication of services between health-care providers, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services; access and share information on the Internet; and collaborate on the development of data systems.

It also recommends that a fourth summit be held here next year.