Leaders from tribes in the Great Plains in Washington, D.C, on February 3, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Tribal leaders question management changes at IHS in Great Plains

Tribal leaders questioned a management shakeup at the Indian Health Service on Wednesday, arguing that the last-minute changes are preventing Congress and the public from finding out the truth about the substandard quality of care their people receive.

The IHS announced the removal of Ron Cornelius as the director of the Great Plains Area just two days before a major Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. But even though tribes have criticized Cornelius's performance, they insisted they weren't told in advance about the decision.

"There was no tribal consultation regarding this," William Bear Shield, a council member for the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, told lawmakers.

Harold Frazier, the chairman of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, voiced similar concerns. During an emotional listening session that followed the hearing, he said the reassignment prevented Cornelius from answering questions about his record in the region.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Listening Session on Putting Patients First: Addressing Indian Country’s Critical Concerns Regarding IHS

"Was it because this hearing was going to happen and IHS didn't want him to testify?" Frazier asked. "That's a question that Congress should ask IHS. Why was he transferred? Was an evaluation done on his performance?"

"Not that I'm sticking up for him but I think it's important for us to know why he was transferred out," Frazier told Senate staff.

Cornelius is a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. He was assigned to the Great Plains following the removal of Charlene Red Thunder, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe who also faced criticism about her handling of the region.

Unlike Cornelius, though, Red Thunder appeared before the committee in September 2010. She had only been there for about two years and won praise from then-IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux before she was removed.

Adam Meeks, left, and Ron Cornelius. Photos from Indian Health Service

Three months after that hearing, former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who was serving as chairman of the committee at the time, issued a report that outlined a number of problems that continue to plague the Great Plains.

“Decade after decade we’ve seen these problems," Dorgan told the committee yesterday. "There's no real way to sugarcoat what we’re dealing with."

Dorgan said IHS employees in the Great Plains have remained on the job even after committing criminal acts. Firing certain people appears to be extremely difficult, he testified.

During the hearing and the listening session, tribal leaders agreed that the IHS suffers from corruption and cronyism. Employees often threaten colleagues who express concerns about the level of care, contributing to low morale, the committee was told.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Indian Affairs Committee Oversight Hearing on Reexamining the Substandard Quality of Indian Health Care in the Great Plains

Victoria Kitcheyan, the treasurer for the Winnebago Tribe, said her aunt was reported to the Nebraska licensing board for trying to find out more about a patient death at the Winnebago Service Unit. The patient who died was Debra Free, her aunt's sister.

"My aunt was retaliated against -- she was a nurse at the hospital -- because of our inquiries," Kitcheyan testified at the hearing.

Kathleen Wooden Knife, a Rosebud council member who also used to work for the agency, said senior leaders in the region were more concerned about keeping "warm bodies" than addressing the substandard service. "He didn't care about the quality of health care," she said of one particular IHS official during the listening session.

In a sign of the troubling conditions, the Great Plains suffers from a 37 percent employee vacancy rate, one of the highest in Indian Country, Principal Deputy Director Robert McSwain, who serves as the acting head of the agency, acknowledged at the hearing.

Kevin Meeks, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, is now serving as acting director of the region. He comes from the Oklahoma City office, according to his biography.

The IHS plans to consult tribal leaders about a permanent director for the Great Plains, McSwain said in a letter that was posted by The Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

The Great Plains Area covers Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, Nebraska. Facilities in the region provide service to about 122,000 tribal members, according to the IHS.

Committee Notices:
Reexamining the Substandard Quality of Indian Health Care in the Great Plains (February 3, 2016)
A Listening Session on Putting Patients First: Addressing Indian Country’s Critical Concerns Regarding IHS (February 3, 2016)

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