Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies - Review of the FY2020 Budget Request for the Indian Health Service - May 1, 2019

AUDIO: Indian Health Service won't commit to advanced appropriations either

Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney isn't alone when it comes to a key issue -- advance appropriations for tribal programs.

The leader of the Indian Health Service won't commit to advance appropriations for his agency either. But unlike his counterpart, Principal Deputy Director Michael Weahkee at least acknowledged that tribes are supporting efforts to provide funding for the IHS ahead of time.

"I want to confirm that I have heard robust support for advance appropriations from both our tribal and our urban constituents," Weahkee, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, said at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Weahkee also confirmed that advance appropriations would alleviate the problems that tribes and urban providers encountered during the recent shutdown of the federal government. He said he heard "very specific stories of the heartbreak" felt in Indian Country during the impasse, which lasted a record-breaking 35 days.

Weahkee told the Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies that he learned about tribal and urban "programs having to curtail services, having to lay off staff -- all of that information very recent and raw."

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico): Tom Questions IHS Leadership

The comments came a day after Sweeney, who oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education, was asked about advance appropriations. Though she's been on the job for more than 9 months, she said she needed more time to study an issue that has drawn support from a growing number of tribes and lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans alike.

"I don't have an answer for you today, but I would like to have the opportunity to provide you with a more in-depth answer," Sweeney told the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on Tuesday.

As a Senate-confirmed political appointee, Sweeney is in a better position that Weahkee to help the Trump administration develop a policy, for or against, advance appropriations. Tribal leaders, and key members of Congress, have repeatedly called on her to be a stronger advocate for Indian Country's concerns but that hasn't resulted in anything concrete so far on the issue of advance appropriations.

Weahkee, on the other hand, is a career employee with less of an influence in setting policy. He is the highest-ranking official at the IHS only because the Trump administration has failed to nominate a permanent director.

At least four advance appropriations bills have been introduced so far in the 116th Congress, although the idea goes back years. Supporters say forward funding will help the BIA, the BIE and the IHS carry out their trust and treaty responsibilities in a more consistent and reliable manner.

“It’s really clear that we need to move in this direction and pass the Indian Programs Advance Appropriations Act,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the top Democrat on the Senate subcommittee, said of S.229, the measure he is sponsoring.

Advance appropriations isn't a partisan issue either. In the past, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the subcommittee, has sponsored legislation to provide forward funding for tribal programs.

'There are some bright spots in this year’s budget proposal that appear to take steps to address important health concerns in our Native American and Alaska Native Communities and a few other areas where we need some additional information," Murkowski said at the hearing on Wednesday. One area she expressed concerns about was a cut in funding for construction of IHS facilities.

Besides S.229, bills in the 116th Congress that would provide advance appropriations to the BIA, the BIE and the IHS include:

H.R.195, the Pay our Doctors Act.

H.R.1128, the Indian Programs Advanced Appropriations Act.

H.R.1135, the Indian Health Service Advance Appropriations Act of 2019.

The Senate hearing lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Audio can be found on the Indianz.Com SoundCloud.

Michael Weahkee serves as Principal Deputy Director of the Indian Health Service. Photo: IHS

Senate Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Notice
Review of the FY2020 Budget Request for the Indian Health Service (May 1, 2019)

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