Senator Mike Rounds’ Weekly Update: Indian Affairs Hearing a Call to Action

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By Senator Mike Rounds

Lack of adequate and timely health care in Indian Country has been an ongoing issue for many years. The Indian Health Service (IHS) of the Great Plains region, which is responsible for providing health care to all nine tribes in South Dakota, is failing to live up to the federal government’s responsibility to deliver

quality health care to Native Americans.

Troubling reports from a number of IHS facilities—including Rosebud and Pine Ridge – have found gross mismanagement, dirty medical equipment, broken sanitizers and blatant corruption. This has led to inexcusable suffering by patients and – in some cases –even death. In one outrageous case, a woman gave birth to hear baby on a bathroom floor with no nurses or doctors around to help her.

When the Rosebud IHS facility diverted its emergency room services last year—without notifying the Rosebud tribal leaders ahead of time – patients had nowhere to go for emergency care. My staff was made aware of a patient who had been transported to Winner due to the diversion and was treated there. However, upon release, the patient had no transportation back home to Rosebud and had to spend the night in the Winner jail just to stay warm. This kind of treatment is inexcusable.

These and other stories were highlighted during a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee haring entitled, “Re-examining the Substandard Quality of Indian Health Care in the Great Plains.” Earlier this year, I led my colleagues in a letter requesting this hearing to understand firsthand the problems within IHS so we can begin to address them. Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wy.) also provided me the opportunity to participate in the hearing along with Senator John Thune. During the hearing, we heard more concerning stories of medical neglect and substandard patient care. Chairman Barrasso, a physician himself, called these problems “malpractice.”

Even more troubling, Indian Health Service has known about these problems for years. In 2010, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee issued a report citing chronic mismanagement, lack of employee accountability and financial integrity at IHS facilities. The report identified five IHS hospitals in the Great Plains area at risk of losing their accreditation or certification from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Six years later, IHS facilities continue to fail at reaching basic benchmarks for providing proper health care.

Providing health care to members of the Native American community is a trust responsibility of the federal government. Clearly, IHS is failing to uphold this responsibility. The hearing was a step in the right direction toward finding a solution to the problems at IHS, but until we help to facilitate a plan of action to remedy the situation and to properly execute the plan, we won’t get the results we want and the results the community should expect.

No South Dakota citizen, whether they are a member of a tribe or not, should be denied access to quality health care from qualified medical professionals because of the incompetence of a federal agency. I think all South Dakotans can agree that this situation must be resolved.