Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price addresses a meeting of the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2017. Photo: Chris Smith / Department of Health and Human Services

Secretary of Health and Human Services continues outreach in Indian Country

The new leader of the Department of Health and Human Services is in Oklahoma this week to meet with tribes and learn more about their health care efforts.

Secretary Tom Price, a physician and former Congressman from Georgia, is visiting the Pawnee Nation on Tuesday. The tribe is showing the Cabinet official its health care operation and hosting a cultural program at its ceremonial roundhouse in Pawnee.

On Wednesday, Price heads to the Cherokee Nation, where he will visit the Jack Brown Treatment Facility, the tribe's treatment center for Indian youth. He is also scheduled to attend a cultural presentation at the Cherokee Nation Veteran’s Center in Tahlequah.

While in Oklahoma, Price will convene the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee. It's the first time the group, which consists of federal and tribal representatives, is meeting in Indian Country.

Price, who was confirmed by the Senate in February, addressed the committee for the first time in March, when it met in Washington, D.C. That's when he endorsed a suggestion to hold future gatherings in tribal communities.

The Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma invites you to join the Pawnee Business Council in welcoming United States Secretary of...

Posted by Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma on Friday, September 8, 2017
Pawnee Nation on Facebook: Cultural Program for Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Secretary Price

“I would relish the opportunity to visit your nations and tribes to see first-hand the challenges,” Price said at the March 8 meeting.

Price followed up on that commitment by visiting tribal health care facilities in Alaska in August. What he saw there was "remarkable," he told tribal leaders at a meeting hosted by the White House last week.

"The Alaska Native Health Consortium has built a system that truly puts the patient at the center of everything," Price said on September 12. "It meets patient’s needs holistically by integrating physical and mental healthcare, and incorporates Alaska Native traditions and spirituality. As I said on several occasions, I think there’s something the rest of America could learn from what Alaska Natives have built."

Tribal leaders who attended the White House session said they appreciate Price's focus on childhood obesity, mental health and opioid addiction, three issues of critical importance in Indian Country. But they haven't heard him address the need for adequate funding for the Indian Health Service.

"Indian Country is in crisis," Victoria Kitcheyan, the treasurer for the Winnebago Tribe, said after the meeting, during which she advocated for more resources for the IHS.

While acknowledging the devastating impacts of Hurricane Harvey, Kitcheyan questioned why Price's department diverted resources from one of its most troubled hospitals to Texas. The Omaha Winnebago Hospital, which is located on her tribe's reservation in Nebraska, lost its Medicare and Medicaid certification -- along with key sources of funding -- more than two years ago due to substandard care at the facility.

"We can't afford to send people to Houston," Kitcheyan said. On September 8, HHS featured a video on its Facebook page of a nurse practitioner from the hospital who was treating victims of the massive storm.

The IHS is still unable to say when the hospital will regain Medicare and Medicaid certification. In June, the facility lost its top executive barely six months after starting the job.

Further up the chain, the agency itself remains without a permanent leader. Since January, two different employees have served in an "acting" capacity because President Donald Trump has failed to nominate someone for the director's post, an unprecedented situation at the IHS.

"What is the plan for HHS to provide leadership to address some of the quality care issues happening at IHS?" Chester Antone, a leader from the Tohono O'odham Nation who serves as chairperson of the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee, wrote in a letter to Price following the committee's meeting back in March.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing September 13, 2017

Michael D. Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, is currently serving as the "acting" director of the IHS. In testimony to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week, he said the agency has been making progress to address recommendations made by the Government Accountability Office.

One of those involved patient wait times. Although the standards aren't enforceable, the IHS is promising tribal citizens an average wait of 28 days for a primary care appointment and 48 hours for an urgent care appointment.

"IHS is taking its challenges seriously and will actively address the GAO’s recommendations to benefit our patients," Weahkee said in a blog post on Monday.

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