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IHS positions to lose Indian preference under Bush plan

The Bush administration is moving forward with a controversial consolidation initiative that will result in the loss of Indian preference for 200 positions at the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Dr. Charles Grim, the IHS interim director, outlined the plans in two letters sent to staff and tribal leaders on Monday. In October of this year, he wrote, his agency's human resource program will be taken over by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The action will immediately result in the elimination of about 16 positions. The IHS employees affected will not be fired but will be offered jobs elsewhere or allowed to take early retirement or "buyout" packages, officials said.

But the move impacts Indian Country in another way. Since HHS doesn't follow Indian preference, qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives will no longer be given a boost in the recruitment and hiring process.

"Throughout the planning and management of the HR transition, the HHS commitment to the health needs of American Indian and Alaska Native people has remained strong," Grim wrote in the April 21 letter to IHS staff.

The reduction is part of the Bush administration's "One Department" or "One HHS" effort. First announced two years ago, it calls for the consolidation of several functions -- human resources, information technology and construction -- within the department in order to streamline operations and cut costs.

Tribal leaders have taken part in the discussions on how the changes will affect IHS and have not withheld criticism. They have questioned why the agency is "downsizing" even as Congress gives it more money -- for the coming fiscal year, the Senate has approved $3.3 billion for IHS, an increase of 10 percent over current levels.

Indian Country advocates have also questioned the plans. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee earlier this month asked Grim to hold off on implementation pending further consultation.

"I understand that we need to streamline and consolidate and not duplicate efforts and make better, more efficient use of tax money and so on," said committee chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). "But I have seen too many times in the past when Indian programs get folded into bigger programs, money that had been formerly designated for Indian programs somehow gets transferred or moved or something."

At the time, Grim said many of the changes were still in the planning stages. But this week's announcement included a compromise that had been under discussion for at least a month, according to an IHS source.

"Interviews have already been held to fill the top-level positions," said the source. "It is expected that these positions will be filled by the end of April 2003."

The compromise -- proposed by IHS and agreed to by HHS, Grim said -- is to allow the HR employees to stay in the field, closest to the Indian communities they currently serve. Earlier talks called for the employees to be transferred to one office in Baltimore, Maryland. The IHS is headquartered in Rockville, Maryland.

Despite the switch to "One Department," IHS will continue to pay for the HR positions. Although Grim in his letters wrote that the funds will come out of the "HHS Service and Supply Fund," IHS will be assessed for the costs, said a spokesperson.

Tony Kendrick, director of public affairs for IHS, also said there will be a change in how the human resource posts are filled. "We would not announce them, we would not make selections for them," he said. "Those positions will not be subject to Indian preference because they won't be IHS positions, they will be HHS positions."

In his letter to tribal leaders, Grim also said there will be an additional loss of 18 posts throughout fiscal year 2004. "The HHS will ensure that reductions do not adversely or disproportionately affect the delivery of personnel management services to IHS managers and employees," he wrote.

With about 15,000 employees, IHS is the second largest division within HHS. The agency serves more than 1 million Native Americans.

Relevant Documents:
Letter to IHS Staff (April 21, 2003) | Dear Tribal Leader Letter (April 21, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov
Department of Health and Human Services - http://www.hhs.gov

Related Stories:
Indian health bills criticized by Bush official (04/10)
Senate committee holds Indian health hearing (4/9)
Opposition mounts to Bush IHS initiatives (4/3)
GOP rejects IHS funding measure (3/26)
Budget measure would double IHS funds (3/25)
Bush scoring tool impacts Indian programs (03/07)
Omnibus spending bill gains Bush approval (02/21)
Bush initiative to be scrutinized by Congress (02/18)
Grim expects nomination as head of IHS (2/11)
IHS positions being eliminated (2/7)
'Austere' health care budget cited (2/5)
Thompson releases new IHS budget (2/4)
Senate approves $390B spending bill (1/24)
Indian Country receives diabetes grants (12/11)
Court rebuffs tribes on contract funding dispute (11/27)
Congress approves $750M for Indian diabetes (11/21)
Northern Plains tribes see high infant death rate (10/30)
Navajo Nation challenges contract policy (10/04)
Reports address long-term elder care (08/20)
Bush appoints interim director of IHS (08/05)
Bush delaying pick for IHS post (7/23)
Report stresses importance of health insurance (5/22)
Poor Indian health blamed on federal failures (3/21)
IHS pressed to include tribes in reform efforts (02/28)
IHS budget cuts construction funds (2/12)

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