Hearing on Indian Health Service draws South Dakota delegation

Clockwise, from left: Mary Wakefield, acting deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services; Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota), Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) and Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) at a meeting in Washington, D.C., on June 8, 2016. Photo from Sen. John Thune

South Dakota's entire Congressional delegation will participate in a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing on the Indian Health Service this week.

The hearing takes place at 10:30am on Friday at the Central High School Auditorium, 433 Mt. Rushmore Road, in Rapid City. Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota), Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) and Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota) are all slated to appear.

The three lawmakers have been paying close attention to problems in the troubled Great Plains Area, a region of the IHS that is headquartered in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Last week, they met with Mary Wakefield, the second-in-command at the Department of Health and Human Services who will be testifying at Friday's hearing.

"I want to thank Dr. Wakefield for taking the time to brief the delegation on what her department is doing to correct the problems faced by Great Plains area IHS facilities,” Thune said in a press release after the June 8 meeting. “It’s not an easy job, so I appreciate her attention to this urgent matter."

In the Senate, Thune and Rounds are sponsoring S.2953, the Indian Health Service Accountability Act. Committee staff will discuss the IHS reform bill at a town hall that takes place at 2pm on Thursday in the 3rd Floor Meeting Room East & West at the Rapid City Administration Building, 300 Sixth Street.

Thune said Wakefield offered "some thoughtful feedback" on the bill, which seeks to improve accountability, transparency and patient care at the IHS. She also was supportive of a system-wide audit of the agency, Rounds added.

Over in the House, Noem has introduced H.R.5406, the Helping Ensure Accountability, Leadership, and Transparency in Tribal Healthcare Act (HEALTTH Act), and H.R.5437, a bill that requires the IHS to implement a random drug testing program.

In addition to the South Dakota delegation, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, is expected to run the field hearing. He introduced S.2953 with Thune last month.

The attention is being welcomed by tribal leaders who have long complained about problems in the region. Three IHS hospitals in South Dakota alone have faced sanctions or have reduced care in the last few months.

"Congress has clearly seen the problem that plagues a top heavy organization that is not providing care consistent with trust obligations," Chairman Harold Frazier of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe said. "I am encouraged that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is interested in hearing from Lakota country and I intend to point out the issues and provide suggestions to solve them.”

The hearing will not be webcast live but video will be available later on the committee's website. The witness list follows:
Mary Wakefield, PhD., R.N.
Acting Deputy Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.

The Honorable William Bear Shield
Chairman, Rosebud Sioux Tribal Health Board, Rosebud, South Dakota

Ms. Wehnona Stabler
Tribal Health Director, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Walthill, Nebraska

Ms. Ardell Blueshield
Tribal Health Director, Spirit Lake Tribal Health, Fort Totten, North Dakota

Ms. Stacy Bohlen
Executive Director, National Indian Health Board, Washington, D.C.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices:
Town Hall Meeting "Discussing S. 2953: Improving the Indian Health Service." (June 16, 2016)
Oversight/Legislative FIELD Hearing on "Improving Accountability and Quality of Care at the Indian Health Service though S. 2953." (June 17, 2016)

Federal Register Notice:
Notice of Tribal Consultation and Urban Confer Sessions on the State of the Great Plains Area Indian Health Service (June 3, 2016)

Government Accountability Office Report:
INDIAN HEALTH SERVICE: Actions Needed to Improve Oversight of Patient Wait Times (April 29, 2016)

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Report:
In Critical Condition: The urgent need to reform the Indian Health Service’s Aberdeen Area (December 2010)

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