Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is the Republican co-chair of a new Congressional task force on the Indian Health Service. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Bipartisan task force announced to look into Indian Health Service

A new task force on Capitol Hill will examine the Indian Health Service and look for ways to improve the delivery of care to the first Americans.

The 14-member, bipartisan task force was announced on Thursday. Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California) will serve as co-chairs.

“The Indian Health Service is an important program that often flies under the radar. It’s imperative that members have a thorough understanding of the IHS and the work it does,” Mullin and Ruiz said in a joint press release. “We look forward to beginning our work to raise awareness for this important issue among our colleagues on both sides of the aisle and identify ways we can work together.”

The announcement comes as the primary health care delivery service for millions of American Indians and Alaska Natives faces dramatic change. President Donald Trump is seeking to cut the budget at the IHS and his Republican allies are pushing legislation that tribal leaders fear will reduce resources to the already under-funded agency.

"There's no way we could have cuts of that magnitude without seeing dramatic impact in Indian Country," Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) said of the forthcoming fiscal year 2018 budget request during a hearing on Tuesday with tribal leaders. Cole, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is a member of the new IHS task force.

The working group, which was organized by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, also marks the first initiative of its kind since Congress began a tortuous debate about the Indian Health Care Improvement Act back in the early 2000s. Although lawmakers from both parties supported legislation to renew the law, then-president George W. Bush and conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill blocked passage for a decade.

The law eventually became permanent in 2010 after it was inserted into the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, in reference to former president Barack Obama. Tribal leaders were overjoyed because it relieved them of the need to return to Congress for future reauthorization efforts.

But the Republican campaign to repeal Obamacare put the IHCIA on the chopping block again. However, Mullin and Cole, along with other key lawmakers and leaders, have ensured that the law will not be disturbed by the American Health Care Act, which cleared the U.S. House earlier this month and awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.

“This is an important opportunity for a wide-ranging group of House Republicans and Democrats to learn more about the work the IHS does in our very own communities,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of Energy and Commerce. “We look forward to kicking off our work this week to explore ways to ensure American Indian and Alaska Native communities have access to quality health care.”

The full list of the IHS task force members, which includes seven Republicans and seven Democrats, follows:
• Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), co-chairman
• Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), co-chairman
• Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon)
• Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-New Jersey)
• Rep. Chris Collins (R-New York)
• Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota)
• Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Mississippi)
• Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma)
• Rep. Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota)
• Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan)
• Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-New Mexico)
• Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon)
• Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan)
• Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota)

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