Robert Weaver. Courtesy photo

President Trump nominates Quapaw citizen Robert Weaver to lead Indian Health Service

It's taken longer than expected but President Donald Trump is finally addressing the leadership void at the beleaguered Indian Health Service.

On Friday, the White House announced the nomination of Robert M. Weaver, a citizen of the Quapaw Tribe, to serve as the director of the agency. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first permanent leader of the IHS in more than two years.

Weaver is well known throughout Indian Country for his work on health care and economic development issues. But like many other members of the Trump team, he is an outsider to the federal government.

Some tribal leaders, particularly those from the troubled Great Plains Area, were urging the White House not to promote someone from within the agency in hopes of addressing long-standing management and quality of care issues. Despite numerous warnings, including an investigation by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs nearly a decade ago, a slew of hospitals in Nebraska and South Dakota were sanctioned in the last two years, a period that coincides with the loss of a permanent leader at the IHS.

"We believe this is necessary if the rebuilding of IHS is to have any change at all," William Bear Shield, a council member from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill in June.

Since February 2015, the IHS has seen four "acting" directors, including two since Trump took office on January 20.

But as Trump was taking control nearly 10 months ago, Weaver said Indian Country shouldn't fear the new presidency. He called on tribes to remain united as they seek better services from the government.

“Some people act like the sky is falling but this actually is a very exciting time, especially for Indian Country," Weaver said in a press release at the time. "The sun is still shining and it will shine very brightly on Oklahoma and Native people due the president’s nominees from our state.”

Over the last few months, Weaver was among those mentioned for the IHS post. Aides in the Senate at one point were told to expect an announcement before the end of the summer but that came and went without action from the White House.

"Robert is deserving and will make a great advocate. I am glad to see active and engaged Oklahoma tribal members receiving nominations and appointments," Linda Kay Sacks, a candidate for Cherokee Nation office, wrote in a post on Facebook on Friday.

The last permanent director of the IHS was Yvette Roubideaux, a Rosebud Sioux citizen. She served a three-year term during the Obama administration and was nominated for a second but ended up leaving government in 2015 when the Senate failed to advance her nomination.

Of the four "acting" directors since 2015, three were long-term employees of the IHS. The fourth was a relatively new arrival to the agency.

But the IHS isn't alone in its leadership struggle. Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services less than two weeks ago after drawing criticism for his frequent and costly use of private planes. Trump has not yet nominated a successor.

Price's departure came after two prominent trips to Indian Country -- one to Alaska in August and another to Oklahoma last month. He acknowledged the failure of the government to provide adequate services to tribal citizens but did not commit to securing more funding for the IHS, whose budget has not kept up with inflation or rising costs of health care.

The IHS would see $3.87 billion in discretionary spending if an appropriations bill under consideration in Congress becomes law. That's $292.9 million higher than the amount Trump sought for the agency in his fiscal year 2018 budget request.

Despite the increase, tribes and their advocates say the IHS remains woefully underfunded. A true budget would be in the $7 billion range, they believe.

“Since America’s inception, our Native ancestors have searched for common ground with the federal government," Weaver said in January. "Now, it’s our responsibility to continue that dialogue with this administration. Tribal leadership and members must unite and advocate for quality healthcare for our people.”

According to Weaver, his own tribe made great strides when it created a "universal health plan" for its citizens. His company, RWI Benefits, was chosen to administer the insurance for the program, which was authorized in November 2010.

Chairman John Berrey at the time said the program was the first of its kind in Indian Country. It came just months after then-president Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law in hopes of helping more Americans secure health insurance.

Though millions of Americans -- including tribal citizens -- have benefited from the law, Trump and the Republican Party have attempted to dismantle it. Their efforts so far have been largely unsuccessful.

Weaver's nomination is being referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

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