Nebraska tribes recognized for efforts to hold IHS accountable

Vernon Miller, the chairman of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, speaks at the National Indian Health Board conference in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015. Photo from NIHB / Facebook

Two Nebraska tribes were honored on Wednesday for their efforts to bring more accountability to the Indian Health Service.

The Omaha Tribe and the Winnebago Tribe received the National Impact Award from the National Indian Health Board. The award was presented during the organization's conference in Washington, D.C.

"The support and love shown to us has been like family, but that’s what we do as Native people, we support one another," Winnebago Secretary Tori Kitcheyan said. "We are going to emerge more resilient and capable to provide quality healthcare for our people. A victory for one of us is a victory for all of us.”

The two tribes are pushing the IHS to correct a slew of known deficiencies at the Winnebago Service Unit, which is located on the Winnebago Reservation. The facility lost its Medicare funding in July after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had issued a warning more than a year ago.

Tori Kitcheyan, the secretary of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, speaks at the National Indian Health Board conference in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015. Photo from Winnebago Tribe / Facebook

In a joint resolution passed last month, the tribes slammed the IHS for showing "flagrant disregard for its treaty and trust responsibilities to the Omaha and Winnebago Tribes, as well as a callous disregard for the lives, health and safety of the members of the Omaha and Winnebago Tribes."

Due to the pressure exerted by the tribes, the IHS agreed to replace the chief executive officer, nursing director, clinical director and administrative officer at the facility. But one key official -- Ron Cornelius, the director of the Great Plains Area that includes Nebraska -- remains on board.

Both tribes are seeking his removal, with the Winnebagos accusing him of misleading them about the Medicare issue. According to Winnebago leaders, Cornelius told them that the hospital would be able to maintain its Medicare funding while the IHS pursued an administrative appeal. That turned out to be false.

The Great Plains Area -- also known as the Aberdeen Area because the headquarters are located in Aberdeen, South Dakota -- was the subject of an investigation by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. A December 2010 report warned that five hospitals -- including Winnebago -- were at risk of losing certification from CMS and other entities.

A view of the Winnebago Hospital on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Image from Google Maps

“Our investigation found a chronic state of crisis at the Indian Health Service’s Aberdeen Area,” former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who was serving as chairman of the committee at the time, said in a press release.

Nearly five years later, the tribes are wondering why the IHS failed to correct the known problems. They argue that senior leaders like Cornelius, as well as chief medical officer Mark Jackson, should be held responsible.

“While we welcome the staff changes already made, we will continue to demand the removal of the area director and the chief medical officer for the Great Plains Area who bear ultimate responsibility for the failures at the IHS Winnebago Services Unit,” Winnebago Chairwoman Darla LaPointe said last month.

Darla LaPointe, the chairwoman of the Winnebago Tribe, and Vernon Miller, the chairman of the Omaha Tribe, spoke at a press conference last month to discuss their concerns with the Indian Health Service. Photo from Winnebago Tribe / Facebook

Eventually, both tribes are moving to manage the facility through a self-governance compact. But they want to be assured that the IHS will correct its deficiencies.

In addition to sharing the National Impact Award with the Omaha Tribe, the Winnebago Tribe's Whirling Thunder Wellness Center received a Leadership Excellence award from NIHB for the facility's diabetes program.

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Winnebago Tribe upset with IHS over loss of funds at hospital (8/6)
Winnebago Tribe looking to address deficiencies at IHS hospital (08/05)
Winnebago Tribe hopes to prevent Medicare cutoff at hospital (5/28)

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