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Bush administration asked to halt IHS changes
WEDNESDAY, MAY 7, 2003

The Bush administration was asked Tuesday to engage in a "comprehensive tribal consultation process" before carrying out controversial changes at the Indian Health Service (IHS).

Later this year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plans to take over the Indian agency's human resource staff. The move is pitched as a way to streamline services and cut costs.

But Jefferson Keel, a vice-president of the National Congress of Americans (NCAI) and lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, said the proposal will have a drastic effect on Indian Country. He called on the department to delay reorganization until alternatives can be developed.

"Centralizing all of the Indian Health Service human resources staffing from all 12 of its its area offices and service units to one location in the Washington, D.C., area will seriously degrade and compromise its ability to fulfill its mission nationwide," Keel told a gathering of federal officials and tribal leaders.

Last month, Dr. Charles Grim, the interim IHS director, announced the transfer of 200 human resource positions to HHS. In a letter to staff and tribal leaders, he said they will be managed out of an office in Baltimore, Maryland.

The change is part of the "One HHS" initiative first announced more than a year ago, Grim added in an interview yesterday. He said the department has acknowledged concerns of tribal leaders about the consolidation and a related restructuring of IHS.

"We've taken input up until this time," he said. "We've continued to consult."

But the removal of the HR positions "continues to move forward," he noted. He praised high-level staff for accepting an IHS recommendation to keep the HR employees in the field. In earlier talks, they would have been required to relocate to Baltimore.

When the HR positions are transferred, effective October 1, they will lose their Indian preference status. Qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives won't get a boost in the recruitment and hiring process. IHS will not advertise for the positions or make hiring decisions.

And once an employee in the HR unit retires or leaves, the position will be re-evaluated for possible relocation to IHS. Grim said the department will consult with tribes when that happens.

Tribal leaders warned against any "downsizing" of IHS during yesterday's meeting with top HHS officials, including Deputy Secretary Claude Allen, who has been nominated for a federal appeals judgeship. Although they called this administration one of the most accessible in history, and welcomed Secretary Tommy Thompson's active participation, they underscored the federal government's trust responsibility.

"We pre-paid for this health care," said NCAI president Tex Hall, referring to treaties and other agreements with the federal government. "Unfortunately, that pre-payment has not been honored over the years."

Rachel Joseph, chairwoman of the chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of California, recited a list of statistics that show American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis and other diseases at higher rates than any other group. "These disparities are largely attributed to insufficient funding," she said.

The day-long session, held at HHS headquarters, was to receive tribal views on the fiscal year 2005 budget, which is still in the planning stages. Tribal and Indian health leaders called for increases in a wide range of programs.

For fiscal year 2004, Congress is hoping to allocate about $3.3 billion for IHS.

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

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

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Senate committee holds Indian health hearing (4/9)
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