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HHS reports on regional forums with tribes

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A series of five regional "Listening Council" helped tribal leaders and representatives of the Department of Heath and Human Services better understand common problems and obstacles.

"We worked to construct short and long term agendas through consultation," said Kevin Thurm, deputy secretary for Health and Human Services. "I think we deepened and strengthened the consultation process."

The department just issued a report on the sessions held throughout the United States in 1998 and 1999 at the behest of HHS Secretary Donna Shalala in response to President Clinton's 1994 Executive Memorandum on "Government-to-Government Relations with Native American Tribal Governments." It reaffirmed the unique legal relationship between tribal governments and the federal government.

The report summary shows all five Listening Councils spent a major portion of the time discussing the overall consultation process and the government's continued commitment to proper consultation. Other issues included geographic remoteness from facilities as a barrier to proper care and service, self-governance, the elevation of the director of the IHS to assistant secretary and the need for greater funding.

"The goal of the meetings was to institutionalize the government-to-government relationship and the form in which consultation will occur," said Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians. "This commitment is part of an on-going process. What I was most excited about was the level of participation by senior staff during the course of consultations."

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The report summarizes discussions at each meeting between tribal leaders and federal officials, and addresses and responds to a number of the major issues raised by tribes. Responses in the report are broken down into the categories of funding and budget, allocations, services, care providers, facilities, intergovernmental relations, infrastructure, and data and research. Both the department and tribal leaders have characterized these meetings as a beginning, with concerns and solutions still to be addressed.

"This process not only helps us understand problems and obstacles, but its also about understanding what is available, what works, and how we can continue moving forward together," said Masten. "We have to keep at it in order for it to really work."

Shalala had directed HHS to: 1) consult with Indian people; 2) assist states in the development and implementation of mechanisms for consultation with tribal governments; 3) assess the impact of department plans, projects, programs and activities on tribal and other available resources; 4) remove any procedural impediments to working directly with tribal governments or Indian people; and 5) work collaboratively with other federal agencies.

The HHS then initiated the meetings in Arizona, North Dakota, Washington state, Oklahoma and New York. to address specific health and humans services issues of concern to tribal governments.

"Through these efforts the government is showing a commitment by setting standards and looking at what should be achieved," Thurm said. "The government-to-government relationship is the foundation to improving health and human service outcome for American Indians and Alaska Natives." Thurm and Dr. Michael Trujillo, director of the Indian Health Service, provided specific information about underlying federal laws and authorities, and current and proposed activities.