The Omaha-Winnebago Hospital is an Indian Health Service facility on the Winnebago Reservation in Nebraska. Photo by Kevin Abourezk
Health | National

Winnebago Tribe names executives for takeover of troubled Indian Health Service hospital



Indian hospital in Nebraska heads into new era

Winnebago Tribe taps leadership for new health care system
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk

As a July 1 deadline looms, the Winnebago Tribe has named two executives who will manage the troubled hospital on the reservation after taking it over from the Indian Health Service.

The tribe has named its longtime legal counsel, Danelle Smith, to serve as executive director of the newly established Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System (WCHS), which will be the name of the tribe’s new hospital. The tribe also has named Gary Wabaunsee, a citizen of the Seneca-Cayuga Tribe of Oklahoma, as hospital administrator.

Winnebago Tribal Councilmember Victoria Kitcheyan said the hiring of Smith and Wabaunsee demonstrates the tribe’s commitment to improving patient care at the hospital.

"Ms. Smith and Mr. Wabaunsee bring a wealth of knowledge and experience that will serve the Winnebago tribal hospital well,” she said.

Smith, a citizen of the Winnebago Tribe, has served for 14 years as the tribe’s general legal counsel and spent the past 2 ½ years on the tribe’s self-governance steering committee, which has carried out planning and implementation of the tribe’s assumption of the Indian Health Service hospital on its reservation.

“This is a major step for the Winnebago Tribe and I am honored to be a part of it,” she said. “We are focused on creating a high quality healthcare system that truly meets the needs of our community. I look forward to the many opportunities ahead.”

Dannelle Smith, the new executive director of the Winnebago Comprehensive Healthcare System, and Gary Wabaunsee, the new hospital administrator. Photos: Winnebago Tribe

Smith served as a former partner with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a law firm that represents tribes and Native organizations. She worked on the administrative team for nine years for the Winnebago Tribe’s college, first at the Nebraska Indian Community College and later at Little Priest Tribal College.

She has also served on the governing boards for a variety of organizations, including the Ho-Chunk Community Development Corporation, Nebraska Justice Center and Legal Aid of Nebraska.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Wayne State College and a law degree from the University of Iowa.

Wabaunsee has almost 40 years of experience in health care management, having retired from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps at the rank of captain in 1995. He also served as health director for federal Tribal Health Programs operated under the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act and as CEO at several IHS locations.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Northeastern Oklahoma State University and a Master of Public Health in health administration and planning from the University of Oklahoma.

He said his goal is to “provide quality health care service in a compassionate, caring and culturally relevant environment with the focus first and foremost on patient satisfaction.”


The IHS hospital in Winnebago has struggled following the July 2015 decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to terminate the facility's certification due to serious lapses in patient care. The hospital, already suffering from inadequate funding, can no longer bill Medicare and Medicaid for services.

Almost three years later, the IHS remains unable to say when the hospital might regain certification, despite repeated questions about the substandard level of care.

“This is the worst kind of chicken and egg problem,” Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Minnesota) said at a March 20 hearing on Capitol Hill that focused on the IHS, arguing that the agency faces an uphill battle in correcting problems at Winnebago and other facilities in the Great Plains.

The Winnebago Tribal Council voted last November to pursue self-governance after failing to see improvements at the hospital. The tribe plans to take over the hospital by July 1.

The move to self-governance – as set forth by Title V of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 – allows tribes to assume control over health care funding and programs that the IHS would otherwise provide. A tribe must enter into a compact, as well as a funding agreement, with the federal government that sets forth the terms of their nation-to-nation relationship.

The effort, though, is seeing some resistance. The Winnebago Tribe shares the hospital with the neighboring Omaha Tribe, whose leaders have raised questions about the initiative.

“I feel that IHS has failed us, has killed our people, has not fulfilled their obligations to the people,” Omaha Chairman Michael Wolfe told Indianz.Com in January. “Now they’re bailing out, and they’re just happy and tickled pink that Winnebago wants to take this hospital over. They broke it. Why should the Winnebago want to come and fix it?”

The Winnebago and Omaha tribes would need to agree to move forward with self-governance if they wanted to offer all of the same programs with the same level of funding. But the self-governance process could still move forward with just one tribe on board.

Wolfe has said the Omaha Tribe is still considering whether to join the Winnebago Tribe in its effort to take control of the hospital.

On Tuesday, Wolfe declined to comment, saying he wanted to wait until the Omaha Tribal Council voted on the self-governance initiative.

“I’m not going to have any discussion about this until council is solidified in every option that we want to address,” he said.

New leadership in the Great Plains Area of the Indian Health Service. Photos: IHS

IHS in the Great Plains

The Great Plains Area of the Indian Health Service announced six new administrators who will help oversee the area office and service units.Those new administrators include:

· Dan Davis, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, who will serve as the Great Plains Area deputy director for management operations. In that role, he will advise the area director and will supervise several departments. He graduated from Turtle Mountain Community College and North Dakota State University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.

· Bernie Long, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, who will serve as the Great Plains Area deputy director for field operations. In that role, he will oversee six hospitals, five clinics and the Great Plains Youth Regional Treatment Center in Mobridge, South Dakota. He graduated from the University of North Dakota’s physical therapy program and Indians Into Medicine Program and earned his Master of Arts in Organizational Management from Ashford University.

· Dr. Patrick J. Fullerton, who will serve as the Great Plains Area deputy chief medical officer. In that role, he will provide technical leadership and guidance to facility clinical directors and clinical staff in the region. He holds a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine from Nova Southeastern University and is board certified in family practice with the American College of Osteopathic Family Practitioners.

· Capt. Arlene Lester, who will serve as the Rosebud Hospital CEO in Rosebud, South Dakota. She earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Meharry Medical College and a Master of Public Health from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

· Joe Amiotte, a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, who will serve as the CEO of the Sioux San Hospital in Rapid City, South Dakota. He has spent 19 years with IHS and holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Black Hills State University and a Master of Science in environmental health from East Carolina University.

· Randy Jordan, a citizen of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, who will serve as Sisseton Health Center CEO in Sisseton, South Dakota. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business accounting from Northern State University.

The Great Plains Area works with tribes to provide health care to nearly 130,000 Native Americans in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

“Congratulations to these outstanding professionals on their new positions,” said James Driving Hawk, acting director for the Great Plains Area. “They possess a wealth of knowledge and experience, and they have all demonstrated dedication to public service and the communities we serve.”

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Winnebago Tribe promotes food sovereignty for future generations (March 30, 2018)
Winnebago Tribe moves forward with takeover of troubled hospital (February 6, 2018)
Winnebago Tribe asserts self-determination in hopes of fixing troubled hospital (November 15, 2017)