Health | National | Politics

Senate Indian Affairs Committee expands look into 'substandard' care at Indian Health Service

UPDATE: Due to the blizzard that has hampered travel to and from Washington, D.C., the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has postponed the oversight hearing and listening session to February 3. The business meeting also has been postponed to February 3.
-- Posted on January 25, 2016

Tori Kitcheyan, the secretary of the Winnebago Tribe, speaks at the National Indian Health Board conference in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015. Also pictured is Vernon Miller, the chairman of the Omaha Tribe. The two tribes received the National Impact Award from the NIHB for their efforts to bring more accountability to the Indian Health Service. Photo from Winnebago Tribe / Facebook

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is expanding its inquiry into the "substandard" level of care at the Indian Health Service.

The panel is holding an oversight hearing next Wednesday into the Great Plains Area at the agency. Tribes in the region -- particularly those in Nebraska and South Dakota -- have consistently complained about management failures and cutbacks in service that have contributed to serious problems at hospitals and clinics on their reservations.

To address the concerns, five top officials from the Department of Health and Human Services will appear before the committee. Included is Robert G. McSwain, the de facto director of the IHS who has promised to bring change and improve accountability in the region, according to leaders of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska who have met with him and his staff during frequent trips to Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration witnesses will be joined by a second panel of tribal leaders and tribal members who have experienced problems in the region firsthand. Recent changes include a cutback in services at the Rosebud Service Unit, which serves the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, along with a loss of Medicare funding at the Winnebago Service Unit, which serves the Omaha Tribe and the Winnebago Tribe.

Leaders of the Omaha Tribe with the National Indian Health Board during a meeting in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2016. The tribe attended the NIHB directors meeting after the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in Nebraska v. Parker. Photo from Omaha Tribe / Facebook

But the Great Plains won't be the sole focus of the committee's work. Following the hearing, lawmakers and staff will host a listening session to hear about problems facing the IHS in other parts of Indian Country.

The proceedings mark the first significant national review in decades of the agency that is charged with providing health care to millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives. Although the IHS budget has increased year to year, it remains the target of complaints across the nation.

The committee last looked at the IHS in 2010 when former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who was serving as chairman, released an investigation into the Great Plains. Some of the problems that were identified in the report -- including threats to Medicaid funding and service cutbacks -- remain an issue today.

The hearing and listening session will take place on January 27 in Room 216 of the Senate Hart Office Building. A business meeting on two unrelated bills will start off the afternoon at 2:15pm.

The witness list for the panel of tribal representatives is still being finalized. The federal witnesses for follow:
Panel I
Mary Wakefield, Ph.D., R.N.
Acting Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.

Mr. Andrew M. “Andy” Slavitt
Acting Administrator, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Washington, D.C.
Accompanied by Patrick H. Conway, M.D.
Acting Principal Deputy Administrator, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Washington, D.C.

The Honorable Robert G. McSwain
Principal Deputy Director – Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD

Susan V. Karol, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer – Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Rockville, MD

Committee Notices:
Reexamining the Substandard Quality of Indian Health Care in the Great Plains (January 27, 2016)
A Listening Session on Putting Patients First: Addressing Indian Country’s Critical Concerns Regarding IHS (January 27, 2016)
Business Meeting to Consider S. 1125 & S. 1983 (January 27, 2016)

Join the Conversation

Related Stories:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to look at 'substandard' care at IHS in Great Plains (01/12)
Mary Annette Pember: Native women affected by cutbacks at IHS (12/29)
Lakota Country Times: IHS restricts care at Rosebud hospital (12/24)
Nebraska tribes recognized for efforts to hold IHS accountable (09/24)
Tribes in Nebraska demand resignations of senior IHS officials (08/12)
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) h