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Washington in Brief

House Democrats urge haste on health care reauthorization

With work days dwindling on the legislative calendar of the current 109th Congress, Democrats in the House of Representatives urged Republican-chaired committees to act on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act amendments, House Bill 5312 in the House.

“Any further delay would undoubtedly set back the delivery of adequate health services to our country’s first Americans,” contends a letter initiated by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., signed by 22 lawmakers and sent to the chairmen of the three House committees of jurisdiction over the bill: Resources, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce.

The Indian Health Care Improvement Act became law in 1976 but has not been updated since 1992. Advocates in Indian country and mainstream health care professions have brought a brace of amendments before Congress the past six years, arguing that reauthorization will help to modernize health care for the nation’s least healthy population – Native people. But given the volume of program detail on the table, the amendments would amount to more than a simple reauthorization of existing law. A war-shorn federal budget has also hindered the bill’s advancement.

Latest dam compensation bill gets a hearing and an earful

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Sen. John McCain showed a trace of his trademark flintiness at a June 14 hearing on further compensation for two Missouri River tribes that have never fully resurfaced from partial inundations caused by federal dam construction in the 1950s.

Chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the Arizona Republican welcomed the opinions of one and all. But in remarks sure to be rehearsed with rather extreme prejudice amongst the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, which brought a contingent of elders and youth into the Capitol Hill hearing room, McCain warned Chairman Michael Jandreau that the committee will run out of sympathy if tribes continue to revisit the trough of the federal treasury for compensation.

At issue is whether Lower Brule and Crow Creek have been compensated equitably compared with payments to other dam-flooded Missouri River tribes. The occasion of the hearing was a Government Accountability Office report issued May 19. It cast doubt on previous findings that the tribes have been under-compensated in comparison with other Missouri River tribes because of differences in methodology used to calculate payments due from the floodings.

The technical details here add up to one essential difference. The GAO calculated payments from a baseline of tribes’ final asking prices or “last best offers” in Missouri River dam-related settlements. By contrast, Dr. Michael Lawson, of Morgan, Angel and Associates in Washington, said he calculated payments from a baseline approximating fair market value of the flooded assets (including lands, buildings, infrastructure, cultural sites and whole communities). He added that the GAO approach gives too much weight to the negotiating talents of tribal leaders at the time of settlement, and not enough to the “extreme duress” implicit in the federal posture on the dam construction project.

Lawson’s written testimony addresses the duress more fully: “Congress in 1952 stipulated by law that negotiations with the Tribes would not be allowed to interfere with the scheduled construction of the dam projects. ... Their lands were going to be flooded, and their tribal members relocated whether or not they agreed to settlement terms.”

Jandreau said Lower Brule leaders of the past considered $432 million in compensation correct and fair, not a negotiating position. They settled for a lower payment. “But this is not a negotiation.” From his written testimony: “Our land had been flooded and we were trying to do the best we could.”