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Health Board demands hearing

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RAPID CITY, S.D. ? The Black Hills Health Board is demanding a full Congressional investigation of the local health system and of the federal IHS system to determine how money is spent after an audit revealed some mismanagement of funds.

The results of a 1998 audit obtained by the board revealed more than $300,000 missing from IHS funding for the previous health board. The previous health board had contracted with the IHS to provide services to patients in the Black Hills area but it disbanded when the IHS asked that the excess funds be returned, said Joe Valandra, chairman of the Black Hills Health Board.

An audit conducted by the Rapid City-based firm of Ketel Thorstenson Inc. and acquired by the new health board showed that $317,881 could not be accounted for. The grant from the IHS to the previous health board totaled $654,995, of which $337,114 was properly spent, documents show.

The auditors recommended resolution of the unaccounted money with IHS, but the board disbanded in 1998 leaving the matter open. Anoymous sources recently handed the audit to the current volunteer board.

It was not all the fault of the previous board, Valandra said, adding that it may not have known what was going on.

The predecessor board was also under investigation. It also received continued criticism from tribal members and patients of the Sioux San Hospital, the IHS facility here. The board received complaints of improper health care, long waiting periods to see doctors and misuse of funds. Residents also regularly attacked individual board members.

At the same time the public and the board joined in attacks on the administration of Sioux San. Rumors of threats to close the hospital have run rampant for more than five years.

The new board was formed as an oversight group to keep track of expenditures and advocate for better health care at Sioux San. It is a volunteer organization and has filed its charter with the State of South Dakota. It awaits non-profit tax-exempt 501(c)3 status.

Valandra said the board acquired the 1996 and 1998 audits but lacked the 1997 one. If it were available, any inconsistencies in spending might show what many people believe is a cover up, he said.

Valandra observed that the hospital's operations were controlled higher up the chain of command.

'Sioux San is a very good federal agency, but as a health care provider it fails miserably,' he said. He made the same observation about the IHS.

The audit indicates that is was the IHS, not the former health board, that may have been in error. The audit indicates that the money was spent on every program that was authorized or ordered by the IHS and that it is the IHS paperwork that shows the money not accounted for.

This finding prompted members of the current board to call the IHS the federal government's Enron, Valandra said.

The bottom line, board members argue, is health care. They claim that health care at Sioux San and at other IHS facilities is in decline because of under-staffing and under-funding.

'Whenever we want to find out about the expenditures or other matters we are stonewalled,' Valandra said. 'Nobody is there to address this issue, not the congressional delegation or the Inspector General.'

Daryl Russell, director at the Aberdeen Area IHS office, did not return phone calls.

At one time, Sioux San was considered the best hospital in the IHS system. But now the board is asking why it takes eight hours to see a physician and get a prescription. Valandra said that third-party collections are down and board members want to know why and by how much.

Many patients are referred to other facilities and the facility is either never paid or paid late. As a result, patients receive debt-collection calls.