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Montana Senators: Indian Health Service Faces 'Dire' Leadership Need

Indian Health Service logo.
Indian Health Service

Montana's U.S. Senators say they're disappointed that President Trump's nominee to lead the Indian Health Service has been withdrawn, and they say the agency is in dire need of qualified leadership. The agency has been without a permanent director since 2015.

"I'm expecting better, and I hope the administration will send us a highly qualified candidate," said Senator Steve Daines, who said he didn't get a favorable impression of Insurance Broker Robert Weaver when he met with him after Weaver was nominated to lead the IHS. The Republican Senator, like Democrat Jon Tester, sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"I don't think he is the leader the IHS needed," Daines said, "and it is definitely for the best that he's no longer under consideration. I was not alone with the concerns that I had about Mr Weaver, for such an important role."

Weaver came under fire in January, when the Wall Street Journal quoted former colleaguesalleging that he exaggerated his prior work experience.

Last week, Weaver's nomination was withdrawn from consideration for the job. Since then, he has written that he was, “forced out,” and that his nomination was involuntarily withdrawn by the White House. On Tuesday, Weaver wrote that press accounts of his work history are baseless and incorrect.

Weaver has not replied to an interview request from MTPR and NPR. 

Senator Jon Tester said research by the Senate revealed problems with Weaver's nomination, who he said initially appeared to be a good fit for the job.

"This position has been without somebody for nearly three years," Tester said. "Filling this position is not optional, it is part of the trust and treaty responsibility this country has with tribes, and we need to get this position filled as soon as possible. There are a lot of good people out in this country that can do this job. The administration needs to get us somebody who we can confirm that has the skill set to do this job, and sooner rather than later."

Tester sent President Trump a letterMonday expressing those sentiments

I asked Senator Tester if he faulted the Trump administration for nominating someone who had not been properly vetted for the top job at IHS.

"No, I think this can happen," Tester said. "What I think is really important moving forward, Eric, is that they get us somebody much sooner than later. So we can get them confirmed, and I think that's what's really important. If they dilly-dally on this, and this position's left open it's a major problem for Indian Health Service and not good for our Native American folks that are depending upon Indian Health Service for their health care."

The next IHS leader will face significant challenges providing care to the 3.7 million American Indians and Alaska Natives eligible to use it. In treaties, Tribes were promised health care in return for giving up nearly all of their ancestral lands to the federal government.

This month the National Indian Health Board told Congress that the IHS' current budget of $4.8 billion will meet only 46.6 percent of the need for Native American health care nationwide. Last year that group of tribal leaders told Congress that, bigger picture, the Indian Health Service needs $32 billion, phased in over 12 years.

Senator Daines is not convinced that money is the IHS' biggest issue.

"It's not just a funding issue," Daines said. "Throwing more money at it isn't going to solve the fundamental problem of lack of accountability and lack of leadership."

Daines would not commit on whether he thinks the current IHS budget is adequate. He said the agency needs to prioritize and look at where it spends money.

“One of the areas we need to address is to insure that the compensation structure for the health professionals that serve, the folks that are right there on the front line, delivering health care in Indian Country, that the wages they're provided are competitive, so that we can attract and retain good health care professionals," said Daines. "That is an area that needs to be addressed, and that's what we need to prioritize.”

Senator Tester has a different view.

"It's well documented that IHS has been underfunded now for decades, and you can't get blood out of a turnip, you can't get healthcare out of an agency that doesn't have enough money to be able to do the job that they're required to do," Tester said, adding, "Congress also needs to do its job and make sure IHS has the dollars it needs, no more, no less, to do the job that's required, and that's to take care of the Indian people."

The Trump administration has not yet announced a new nominee to lead the Indian Health Service.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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