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Indian Health Service: 2020 in Review
Director of Indian Health Service steps down at request of President-elect Joe Biden
Friday, January 15, 2021

Michael Weahkee will be stepping down as director of the Indian Health Service on January 20 as the U.S. government transitions to a new presidential administration.

Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, said in a letter to Indian Country providers that he was asked to step down by President-elect Joe Biden. He said the request was “standard” as one executive branch administration transitions to another.

“It has been a sincere honor to have been entrusted to serve in this role,” Weahkee said in the January 11 letter. “I believe the IHS is more capable now than ever before of fulfilling our vision of healthy communities and quality health care systems through strong partnerships and culturally responsive practices.”

Weahkee, who has worked in tribal and Indian health for more than two decades, was nominated by President Donald Trump in October 2019. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in April 2020 with the support of numerous tribal nations and Indian Country organizations.

Michael Weahkee. Photo: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Weahkee stepped in after Trump abandoned his first nominee in 2018. Robert Weaver, a citizen of the Quapaw Nation, came under fire for his limited professional and educational background.

Weaver attended college but his resume does not state whether he obtained a degree. He also lacked direct experience in providing clinical care, which would have made him the first director of the IHS without medical capabilities.

The IHS is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. Biden has named Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California and a former member of U.S. Congress, as his nominee, to lead the federal agency as Indian Country deals with the worst public health crisis in more than a century.

“The mission of the Department of Health and Human Services has never been as vital or as urgent as it is today,” Becerra said on December 8. “The COVID pandemic and its economic fallout have thrust families into crisis.”

“Too many Americans are sick or have lost loved ones,” Becerra said. “Too many have lost their jobs, and with that, their healthcare and hope.”

In his work as attorney general of California, Becerra has defended the legality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) from attacks by Republican officials from other states. The ACA contains a permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which could be struck down if the larger law is declared unconstitutional.

The case is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments took place on November 10. A decision is expected before June.

“Tribal nations prepaid for our health care,” Chairwoman Amber Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe said during the National Tribal Health Conference, which was hosted by the National Indian Health Board, last October. “Our treaties require the federal government to fund our people’s care for the next seven generations and beyond.”

Becerra also has been a strong defender of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), which has come under attack by Republican officials from other states, some of them involved in the ACA lawsuit. The same federal judge who struck down the ACA happens to be the same one who concluded that ICWA was unconstitutional because it is based on “race.”

The case is pending before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments took place nearly a year ago, on January 22, 2020. It’s not clear when a decision will be issued.

With Weahkee’s resignation effective on January 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration, the door is open for the Democratic president to nominate a new director of the IHS. His pick will go through the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is slated to be under Democratic control now that the party has gained the upper hand in the chamber during the 117th Congress.

As for Becerra, his nomination will be considered by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. A hearing date has not been announced, as the Senate has not formally convened and is not expected to do so until January 19, a day before the inauguration.

Democrats will hold 50 seats in the Senate once Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are seated in the chamber. Both candidates won their run-off elections in Georgia earlier this month.

In the event of a tie, the president of the Senate can break it. During the 117th Congress, the position will be held by Kamala Harris, the Vice President-elect who currently serves as one of the two U.S. Senators from California.

Read More on the Story
Judge Rules U.S. Indian Health Service Must Disclose Sex-Abuse Report (The Wall Street Journal January 13, 2021)
Indian Health Service Director Michael Weahkee Asked to Resign by the Biden Transition Team (Native News Online January 14, 2021)
Top Official at Indian Health Service Will Step Down (The New York Times January 14, 2021)