South Dakota Senator Blasts Great Plains Area Indian Health Service

ICTMN contacted Rounds’ office and found preliminary preparations in the works for field hearings in the IHS’s Great Plains Regional area.
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In a press release on Thursday, U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, R-SD, said, “Tribal members have been suffering and dying due to inadequate or improper health care provided by IHS.” The Senator then met with area tribal officials in Pierre, South Dakota on Friday.

ICTMN contacted Rounds’ office and found that preliminary preparations are in the works for field hearings in the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) Great Plains Regional area to begin at an undetermined date, though Rounds Public Affairs Director Natalie Krings believes they are in the planning for the near future.

Citing specific trouble spots, Rounds said, “My office has begun working on an in-depth profile analysis of IHS. We’re working with the Congressional Research Service and analyzing data and reports from the Government Accountability Office and the Department of Health and Human Services to find answers.”

The Senator turned the heat up, stating, “What we have found so far says a lot about why IHS is failing so miserably.” Rounds turned his fire specifically at the Great Plains Regional Area of the IHS, saying “South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa is plagued with systematic problems.”

The junior senator said: “Tribal members have been suffering and dying due to inadequate or improper health care provided by IHS. It is time for IHS to get its act together and follow through on its trust responsibility to deliver quality health care to Native Americans.”

Rounds listed a multitude of problems that have arisen since he took office in January 2015: “[I]f we don’t solve the problems at IHS, we will continue to see more hospitals failing to meet basic requirements to provide safe health care, therefore losing essential services like emergency care. The Rosebud hospital’s emergency department has been on diversion — which essentially means it is shut down — for four months, forcing patients to be diverted to facilities 50 or more miles away. The Winnebago and Pine Ridge hospitals have also been cited for serious safety deficiencies.”

Rounds said the focus needs to be on why so many problems are repeated over and over without any apparent fix. “I plan on finding answers to these questions and working with the tribes on solutions,” he said. “We heard horrific stories of dirty or broken medical equipment, poor record-keeping, and in one inexcusable case, a woman gave birth to her baby on a bathroom floor with no nurses or doctors around to help her.

“Tribal members have told my office that some IHS hospitals they visit are working with outdated, inadequate and sometimes broken medical equipment. Through our research, we have found that IHS allocates less than 0.5 percent of its $4.8 billion budget to equipment purchases.

From the Rounds release: “The Great Plains Area IHS, which operates 35 of the total 153 IHS facilities, only receives $116 million for direct care, or 2 percent of the IHS total appropriation. We also learned that IHS has more than 15,000 employees but only 750 are identified as doctors, yet more than 3,700 employees are dedicated to Medicaid billing.

“It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the IHS system is more concerned about protecting a bureaucracy than taking care of people. IHS has no funding formula, no consistent qualitative reporting measurements, and too many of their ‘Area Directors’ appear to be little more than temporary employees. Lastly, IHS spends less per capita than the Bureau of Prisons spends on each inmate’s health care.

“Looking at statistics like these makes it clear that IHS will never be able to function properly unless it undergoes major changes. More taxpayer money won’t solve the dysfunction. Both systematic and financial changes need to occur.

“The state of IHS has resulted in a federal government-initiated crisis in Indian country. The Great Plains Area ranks second highest in infant mortality rates among all IHS regions. We have the highest diabetes death rates, highest tuberculosis death rates and the highest alcohol-related death rates. Great Plains Area tribal members have the lowest life expectancy rate at 68.1 years, while the U.S. average is 77.7.”

In January, Rounds requested the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hold a hearing “to examine a number of reports of negligence at IHS hospitals in the Great Plains Area.”

ICTMN queries to the Indian Health Service’s Public Affairs office in Rockville, Maryland, drew no response Friday afternoon.