Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on July 12 demanded answers from the Indian Health Service on a proposed $300 million budget cut in fiscal year 2018 for the agency charged with serving some 2.2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“It breaks my heart to think that we have such disparities with how we are providing for health care for our Native peoples,” she told Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the new acting director for the Indian Health Service.
The hearing of the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Murkowski, focused on the Trump administration’s budget request to decrease the agency’s budget by $300 million in fiscal year 2018 from last year’s enacted levels. Video from the hearing is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–hFLGw1vdo&feature=youtu.be
“There is anger, there is frustration and rightly so, because as a government, as an agency, we are failing these people,” Murkowski said. “And there is a lot of focus right now on health care around the country, and what we do to make it right.
“Whether it’s the facilities and maintenance backlog that we’re dealing with and the real pressing need, whether it’s the opioid crisis that is hitting our Native people at astonishing rates and we see it all over the country, but we’re looking at a cut, a 6 percent cut, almost $13 million in the budget for alcohol and substance abuse programs, within the domestic violence initiatives,” she said.
“Do you think you can keep that commitment to improving the HIS with the levels that are proposed within this budget here?” she asked. Weahkee responded that his agency sees the budget as an initial proposal, and that the agency is open to working to identify needs within the Native American community.
Murkowski said the committee needs to know that HIS has the resources needed for the Rose Bud, Pine Ridge and Winnebago reservations and other facilities to meet the legal commitment for health care of American Indians and Alaska Natives established through the courts.
Murkowski noted that the Indian Self -Determination Act mandates that payment of leasing costs when tribal facilities are used to operate Indian Health Service programs, but the budget proposal would override this section, making such lease payments entirely discretionary with in the agency.
Do you think it is reasonable that Indian tribes and tribal organizations should be required to donate use of their facilities to operate health care programs that are a federal responsibility, according to a federal court decision? Murkowski asked.
There is a federal court decision that says you need to do this, she told IHS.
Murkowski also talked about the need to focus on housing, maintaining competitive salaries and other methods to recruit and retain physicians needed for IHS programs to function properly and best serve the people. She said tribes are paying out of pocket for village built clinics that are a federal responsibility.
She also asked the agency to provide data on the breakdown of Medicaid demographics within the agency to have a greater understanding of impacts to Alaska Natives and American Indians nationwide.