Indianz.Com on YouTube: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs opens Indian Health Service hearing - December 11, 2019

Trump's nominee for Indian Health Service promises positive changes

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- What a difference a strong nominee makes when it comes to Indian Country's health and wellness.

Michael Weahkee, a citizen of the Pueblo of Zuni, was embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike as he went before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs for his confirmation hearing on Wednesday. He's been nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as director of the Indian Health Service, a federal agency that's gone without a permanent leader for more than four years.

"I think you're going to get confirmed," Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), a former chairman and former vice chairman of the committee, told Weahkee. "And you should get confirmed."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Nomination Hearing to consider Michael D. Weahkee to be Director of the Indian Health Service - December 11, 2019

The political outlook was a lot more dire earlier in the Trump era. The president's first pick -- Robert Weaver, a citizen of the Quapaw Nation -- was forced to drop out last year after serious doubts were raised about his professional and educational background.

But the leadership crisis at the IHS, which is charged with providing health care to more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, goes back even further. The agency hasn't seen a confirmed director since the Democratic Barack Obama administration.

"Unfortunately, the situation at the Service has grown even more critical in the intervening years," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the committee, said in reference to longstanding quality of care concerns across Indian Country, some of which have gone uncorrected by the IHS and, in some instances, gotten worse.

Michael Weahkee testifies before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 2019. Photo: SCIA

Weahkee, having worked at the IHS and in tribal health settings for more than two decades, is vowing to bring his years of experience to the table should he be confirmed as the new director. He told the committee that he plans to address staffing, recruitment, funding, management and other issues that have hindered the first Americans.

"We cannot solve everything at once, but we can make a positive, real and lasting difference in the lives and health of our patients," Weahkee said in his opening statement. "And we can make what some say is impossible, possible."

According to Weahkee, the IHS has gained ground in fixing problems in the Great Plains, a region that has experienced some of the worst problems. One hospital in Nebraska lost its federal certification -- an unprecedented development in the history of the agency -- and at least three other facilities in South Dakota suffered significant lapses in service after reviews uncovered major patient care issues.

Indianz.Com on YouTube: Michael Weahkee - Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - December 11, 2019

"We have transitioned the Rosebud Indian Hospital from a facility that was on the brink of decertification by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, to now being fully accredited," Weahkee said of the changes occurring in South Dakota, where leaders of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe have blamed several deaths on the lack of services in their community.

"And, just last week CMS conducted a recertification survey of the Pine Ridge Indian Hospital and we look forward to sharing the results of that survey soon," he said of another facility, also in South Dakota, that serves citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Weahkee was not asked about, and he did not bring up, the loss of certification at a unit In Nebraska that serves citizens of the Omaha Tribe and the Winnebago Tribe. Patients were dying and being mistreated at the facility, which has since been taken over and reopened as the Twelve Clans Unity Hospital by the Winnebago Tribe, whose leaders are working to become accredited on their own since the IHS was unable to do the same.

But Udall pointed out that other regions of Indian Country have been plagued with substandard care. Just last month, the facility that serves Pueblo and Navajo patients in New Mexico was forced to shut down its emergency room and its urgent care unit because the IHS -- according to information provided to tribal citizens and seen by Indianz.Com -- couldn't find anyone to work there.

Weahkee, however, did not directly explain what happened at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit, where tribal patients were diverted to facilities much further away from their communities. Instead, he said he would try to make the IHS a more attractive place for doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to work.

"There are many different challenges to our recruitment and retention efforts," said Weahkee, who cited housing, transportation and educational opportunities for spouses and families as among the barriers to bringing in more professional into the IHS workforce.

Members of the committee are also still very concerned about another lingering scandal at the IHS. Stanley Patrick Weber, who worked as a pediatrician at the agency for decades, has been convicted of abusing young male patients on two different reservations, one in South Dakota and the other in Montana.

According to a groundbreaking investigation by PBS Frontline and The Wall Street Journal, Weber remained employed at the IHS even though some fellow employees raised concerns about his behaviors. Potential whistleblowers were sidelined as the man dubbed the "Predator on the Reservation" was transferred to other places instead of being held accountable.

“Those types of activities are absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated," said Weahkee, who vowed to set a "tone at the top" in which transparency and openness are key values at the IHS. "We cannot risk any harm to our patients."

But as more than one lawmaker brought up the Weber scandal, Weahkee tried to shift the focus away from what he deemed to be negative media attention. Despite additional PBS Frontline / Wall Street Journal stories detailing similar incidents elsewhere in Indian Country, he said the IHS hasn't done enough to promote positive initiatives in tribal communities.

"How will you make sure that you don't have a repeat of something like what happened with Stanley Patrick Weber?" asked Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

According to Weahkee, the IHS has developed a "centralized" credentialing system to ensure that health care professionals are in good standing before they are hired by the agency. He also said employees are being encouraged to report something "that doesn't look right" so that incidents and behaviors can be investigated.

"You have my full commitment to transparency and openness," Weahkee later told Udall, who also brought up the Weber scandal.

President Trump announced his intent to nominate Weahkee to serve as director of the IHS on October 22. The nomination was received by the U.S. Senate on October 30.

The confirmation hearing on Wednesday marked a major step in the process for Weahkee, whose official title at the IHS is Principal Deputy Director. Weaver, on the other hand, never even got that far before he was forced out last year.

And in contrast to the prior pick, Weahkee has received a significant level of support from Indian Country. The National Indian Health Board, the Association of American Indian Physicians, the United South and Eastern Tribes and dozens of tribal nations, tribal organizations and Indian health entities are supporting his nomination.

The next step would be for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to advance Weahkee's nomination during a business meeting. The Senate would then be able to vote on confirming him as director of the IHS.

The last confirmed director at the IHS was Yvette Roubideaux, a citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. She departed in 2015 and the agency has seen a slew of "acting" and temporary leaders since then.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Nomination Hearing to consider RADM Michael D. Weahkee, of New Mexico, to be Director of the Indian Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (December 11, 2019)

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