By Sen. John Thune
The Indian Health Service (IHS) is broken. It has been for a long time. And while it might shock some people to know that the federal agency whose sole mission is to raise the “physical, mental, social, and spiritual health” of Native Americans is so fundamentally flawed, it will, unfortunately, come as no surprise to the tribal members throughout South Dakota who depend on it for their health care needs. The IHS is in such dire straits that even a nominal improvement in health care delivery would be far less than what Native American men, women, and children deserve.
While there are many hard-working people who do good work for the IHS, too many systemic challenges remain. The status quo is unacceptable, and it has to change. Words are important, but we are far beyond the time for Congress to take meaningful action to correct these problems. I intend to be part of the solution.
Last year, I introduced comprehensive legislation that would reform the IHS and hold its leaders more accountable to Congress and the communities they serve. I drafted the bill with a colleague from a neighboring state who heard stories similar to the ones tribal members had shared with me. One story in particular stuck with me – a young mother who was in labor at an IHS facility was relegated to giving birth on a bathroom floor without a single medical professional there to help her. It was because of heartbreaking stories like this one that we put pen to paper on our IHS Accountability Act. Enough was enough.
After the i’s were dotted and the t’s were crossed, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) traveled to South Dakota to hear directly, again, from the tribal members whose lives would be affected by our bill. SCIA field hearings aren’t common, so I knew we had a unique opportunity to gather feedback that the committee likely wouldn’t otherwise receive. I’m still thankful that the committee gave South Dakotans such a strong platform to share their stories.
This year, with a new Congress upon us, we’ve teamed up with more senators and representatives to introduce an improved version of our bill. The Restoring Accountability in the IHS Act would accomplish several core goals I’ve sought to implement, including giving the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary greater flexibility to terminate poorly performing employees, streamlining the hiring process so IHS can get additional dedicated and talented medical professionals on the job faster, and creating and expanding incentives so those folks stay on the job longer.
None of this would be possible, though, without continued consultation with tribal leaders and members. Their feedback is critical. They know these issues better than anyone, especially D.C. bureaucrats who are disconnected from the day-to-day life in tribal communities throughout the Great Plains. Together we can accomplish the goal of bringing accountability back to the IHS, and I look forward to finally making it happen.