Indianz.Com Video: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs opens Indian Health Service nomination hearing

Indian Health Service nominee in limbo amid another high-profile crisis

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When the highest-ranking official at the Indian Health Service addressed tribal leaders here last month, he opened with what could best be described as a dad joke.

"So they tell us that if you wear this blue outfit, you are immune to coronavirus," Michael Weahkee, the principal deputy director at IHS, said at the National Congress of American Indians winter session on February 11.

Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, was wearing the operational dress uniform of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps on the afternoon of his address. He also sported it a day prior, when he attended the State of Indian Nations, which was delivered by Fawn Sharp, NCAI's new president.

But as the Trump administration rushes to respond to the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), the agency charged with providing health care to 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) once again finds itself in a familiar state. Despite Weahkee's appearance of being ready for duty, he has yet to be confirmed as the permanent director of the IHS.

"What happened?" one tribal leader asked of Indianz.Com as NCAI's big week was winding down.

The same tribal leader pointed out that the Trump administration, just a couple of months ago, presented Weahkee's nomination as director of the IHS as an urgent matter. The agency has gone without a permanent leader for five years, all while dealing with high-profile crises like the coronavirus and a predatory physician who was found guilty for abusing young patients on two reservations.

Indian Country took the White House's request as sincere, and responded in kind. The National Indian Health Board, the Association of American Indian Physicians, the United South and Eastern Tribes and dozens of tribal nations, tribal organizations and Indian health entities flooded Congress with declarations of support for Weahkee in hopes of ending the long-running leadership void at IHS.

"We rushed to send letters, pass resolutions, we all did our part to get him confirmed," recalled the tribal leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive dealings with the Trump administration. "And now what?"

But, as with most situations in the Trump era, finding out what has happened with the Rear Admiral (RADM) Weahkee and his nomination has been an exercise in near futility. It seems that official Washington does not want Indian Country to know what is going on with the IHS. Or maybe official Washington doesn't know either.

When asked about the status of the nomination a week before NCAI, the IHS had a short response: "For questions regarding RADM Weahkee’s confirmation, please contact the Senate Indian Affairs Committee." The implication was that the process was out of the executive branch's hands.

Michael Weahkee, the principal deputy director of the Indian Health Service, is seen in his blue operational dress uniform following the State of Indian Nations in Washington, D.C., on February 10, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The legislative branch, however, indicated otherwise. According to the Republican majority staff on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Weahkee has yet to respond to all of the inquiries posed to him following his nomination hearing in early December.

"The committee is waiting on follow up material from the nominee in order to finalize the record," a spokesperson for the Republican leadership on the panel told Indianz.Com. "Once all information is received, a business meeting will be scheduled to vote RAMR Weahkee through the committee onto Senate floor consideration."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the Democratic vice chairman of the committee, had voiced support Weahkee, who also hails from New Mexico, during the confirmation hearing on December 11. But he too wasn't entirely sure what was going on when asked about the timeline by Indianz.Com.

"It's unclear," Udall said in an interview during NCAI, where he received a special recognition for his decades of service to the public and to Indian Country.

"He's running the Indian Health Service right now," Udall said of Weahkee, who is indeed the highest-ranking official at the agency.

"It's important that we get him in but we need to do the paperwork, the vetting," Udall added.

Whatever the reason for the delay, Udall stressed that it was important to fill the top leadership position at the IHS. The last person who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as director was Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe who had to step down from the role in February 2015, five years ago. That was during the Barack Obama era.

"I think its important to have a Senate-approved person, no matter when it happens," Udall told Indianz.Com.

To Byron Dorgan, a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs who investigated the substandard level of care at the IHS, the lack of a permanent director speaks of Donald Trump's lack of commitment to tribes and their citizens. During a recent interview, he noted the length of time it took for Weahkee's nomination to surface -- near the end of the president's third year in office.

"In short, this administration has largely ignored the needs of Native Americans," Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, told Indianz.Com a few days before Weahkee's confirmation hearing.

"it's a matter of will," added Dorgan, who founded the Center for Native American Youth to help improve the health, safety and well-being of young people in tribal communities.

"If they had the will to do it, they would," Dorgan said of Trump and his team.

Trump's record when it comes to choosing a leader of the IHS has not been a great one. His first pick proved to be a disastrous one -- so much so that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs never even held a confirmation hearing for Robert Weaver in light of significant questions about his background and his experience.

Almost no one in Indian Country stood up for Weaver during a process that played out in late 2017 and early 2018. It was different for Michael Weahkee, who has won praise for his years of leadership within the IHS.

"In his current capacity as Principal Deputy Director, RADM Weahkee has demonstrated solid and capable leadership, determination, and commitment to honoring the federal Trust responsibility for health and towards raising the health status of AI/AN Peoples to the highest level," Victoria Kitcheyan, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe who serves as chairperson of the National Indian Health Board, wrote in a letter of support.

The Association of American Indian Physicians was quick to "congratulate" Weaver after he had been nominated director but the organization pointed that he did not meet its "minimal qualifications" for the job. Weahkee was another story entirely.

"Association of American Indian Physicians' Executive Board and the Policy and Legislative Committee recently interviewed Rear Admiral Weahkee regarding his excellent qualifications for the position and endorse his appointment," a letter from AAIP President Walt Hollow, a citizen of the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, stated.

The Sovereignty Protection Fund of the United South and Eastern Tribes, whose members are meeting in Washington in two weeks, described Weahkee as someone who "been a commendable advocate for AI/ANs and ensuring our people have access to quality healthcare." The resolution also sought "expeditious Senate confirmation" for the nominee.

Michael Weahkee, the principal deputy director of the Indian Health Service, addresses the National Congress of American Indians in his operational dress uniform during the organization's winter session in Washington, D.C., on February 11, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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