House committee demands answers from IHS, cites Argus Leader reporting

By Jonathan Ellis, Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Democrats and Republicans on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce have asked the leader of the Indian Health Service to address two investigations that highlighted serious lapses in the agency’s care for Native Americans.

In a letter to Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee, the IHS interim director, committee Chairman Member Frank Pallone, Jr., D-New Jersey, and Ranking Member Greg Walden, R-Oregon, said they have “serious concerns” about the agency’s ability to provide quality health care services to the approximately 2.2 million Native Americans and Alaskan Natives.

“Stopping these deplorable conditions and ensuring the safety and well-being of those who entrust IHS with their health care needs must be the top priority of your agency,” they wrote, joined by six other members of the committee. “Despite repeated investigations by Congress, and other federal watchdog agencies, these recent press reports indicate that patient care does not seem to be improving at these IHS-operated hospitals. We must find a way forward to protect IHS patients so that all American Indians and Alaska Natives receive the best care possible.”


Pine Ridge Hospital Wednesday, Aug. 1, in Pine Ridge. (Photo: Briana Sanchez / Argus Leader)

Pine Ridge Hospital Wednesday, Aug. 1, in Pine Ridge. (Photo: Briana Sanchez / Argus Leader)

In a statement to the Argus Leader, Rep. Raul Ruiz, a physician and Democrat from California who also signed the letter, said Congress needs to take “bold, decisive action” to fix the agency.

“We need to tackle this on three fronts: funding, accountability, and self-determination,” Ruiz said. “That means providing adequate funding that enables IHS to do its job, instilling a culture at IHS that no longer tolerates substandard care, and empowering tribes to be more involved in the IHS planning and decision-making process.”

The committee was responding to two separate investigations: One by the Argus Leader and USA Today and a joint investigation by the Wall Street Journal and Frontline.

The Argus Leader investigation focused on deplorable conditions at IHS facilities in the Great Plains, which found examples of substandard care leading to deaths, unnecessary amputations and other health problems. One hospital was infested with mold, another was cited for failing to sterilize surgical instruments, and investigations at one hospital found that a baby had been born on a bathroom floor.

The Wall Street Journal/Frontline investigation focused on an IHS doctor who practiced in Montana and South Dakota who sexually abused Indian children for more than two decades.

The committee’s letter asked IHS staff to address findings in both reports.

An IHS spokeswoman did not immediately reply.

[This story was originally published by Argus Leader.]