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Indian leaders react favorably to Daschle’s Cabinet nod

WASHINGTON – When it was recently announced that President-elect Barack Obama had offered the Secretary of Health and Human Services Cabinet post to former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle – and that the South Dakota politician had accepted – a wave of health-focused hope spread through Indian country.

Daschle was largely viewed as playing a key role in Obama’s campaign for president from its early days and has been noted by many Indian country officials as a key player in helping Obama realize the importance of reaching out to tribes.

Before Daschle was voted out of the Senate in 2004 after more than a quarter century of service in Congress, he had long been seen as a close friend to Indian country. He often met with leaders from the nine tribes in his state, and continued outreach and calls for federal government support to tribes after he lost his seat.

While in the Senate, Daschle worked to secure more funding for Indian-related health issues. Along those lines, he tried unsuccessfully to get Congress to add billions in funding to the IHS budget and to pass legislation to modernize the agency.

Tribal leaders from Daschle’s home state predicted that his placement at the top health agency in the country would positively impact reservations and Indian people in general.

“It can do nothing but help,” said Robert Cournoyer, chairman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

“Mr. Daschle is fully aware of all that’s happening out here in Indian country. I think Mr. Obama made an excellent choice.”

Indian officials largely believe that Daschle would easily be confirmed by the Senate to become appointed to the position after Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

Cournoyer said that Daschle was responsible to the health needs of his tribe while serving in the Senate, but noted that he wasn’t always able to accomplish all that he wanted, especially when he served in the minority. As head of HHS, the tribal chairman and others are hopeful that Daschle will have much more success.

If IHS officials are equally hopeful that Daschle will help increase their perennially under-funded budget, they are keeping their cards close to their chests.

Thomas Sweeney, a spokesman for IHS, said: “It would be premature to make any comment until a new HHS Secretary is confirmed by the Senate.”

Leaders with the National Indian Health Board were more willing to offer speculation on Daschle’s expected new role. On Nov. 24, the NIHB put out a press release applauding Obama’s nomination.

“We look forward to working with Sen. Daschle to end health disparities and to improve the quality of health care for all American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Sally Smith, chairman of the NIHB, said in the release.

The NIHB statement also labeled Daschle a “fearless champion” during his time as minority and majority leader in the Senate, noting that he continually offered amendments to increase funding for IHS, fought for Native veteran’s health care, and introduced legislation to identify and address health disparities and to improve American Indian and Alaska Native access to Medicaid.

If Daschle is confirmed as HHS Secretary, he will be responsible for overseeing the department’s budget of more than $700 billion.

Indian officials said they are most hopeful that Daschle will help to ensure passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act and continue to support full funding for IHS.

According to the NIHB release, the former senator will also be in a unique position to advance tribal issues in other HHS agencies, such as improving Indian access to and reimbursements for Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program; and to improve tribal access to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other department grant programs and funding.

The NIHB and other Indian country officials are now encouraging Daschle to bring tribal leaders to the table and include Indian country in dialogues on health care reform and Medicare and Medicaid reform.

“He won’t need to be brought up to speed on our issues,” said Cournoyer, “so let’s see him hit the ground running. It’s time.”