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High Court: Feds to Contract with Tribe

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In another win for tribal self-determination, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a government appeal concerning the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s operation of a health clinic formerly run by the Indian Health Service and the subject of years of litigation.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to consider the appeal followed a Native rights-friendly decision by the high court last week in Salazar v. Ramah Navajo Chapter, which requires the government to pay the contract support costs (CSC) of tribes that administer programs that had been operated by the federal government.

The Supreme Court let stand a ruling of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 that the Department of Health and Human Services and IHS must contract with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to operate its own clinic.

The issue of tribal control over the clinic had been in litigation both before and after the tribe assumed management of the Southern Ute Health Center in Ignacio, Colorado October 1, 2009, when the tribe and IHS agreed the tribe would begin management of the Health Center while issues were resolved that led to the court dispute.

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A decade ago the tribe had proposed a transfer of clinic operation from IHS to the tribe under the Indian Self-Determination Act and Education Assistance Act, but the IHS declined the proposal, which led to years-long litigation over the start date of a transfer of management and the amount of CSC for administration.

In its decision, the federal appeals court said the Act did not authorize the government to decline a tribe’s contract proposal on the basis that it lacked sufficient appropriations to cover reasonable CSC funding. It also said the start date of the contract was October 1, 2009 although the tribe had requested a determination that the contract start date was October 1, 2005 in order to recover expenses over a four-year period before it assumed management of the clinic.

The Act is to increase tribal participation and direction in federal services to Native communities.

The request to the Supreme Court was from the 10th Circuit ruling in Southern Ute Indian Tribe v. Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services; Richard H. Carmona, surgeon general of the United States; Charles W. Grim, assistant surgeon general and director of the Indian Health Service; James L. Toya, director, Albuquerque Area Office of the Indian Health Service; United States Indian Health Service; United States Public Health Service; United States Department of Health and Human Services.