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Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

A pueblo in New Mexico is suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, claiming that federal health officials have violated the law by ending emergency and in-patient medical care at a hospital on tribal lands.

Acoma Pueblo has sued the federal agency for “failing to abide by federal law” and “refusing to take advantage of existing funding in millions of dollars” in pandemic relief money to fund Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit, according to a news release. Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said the agency has refused to tap that money to help address what he called a "life-and-death situation” at Acoma. 

“The toll of my community has been overwhelming,” Vallo said. “We had no choice except to file suit in federal court.”

Vallo said during a briefing Friday that the lack of emergency health care services could not have come at a worse time. The pueblo of about 3,000 people has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The hospital sits on the northern edge of the pueblo, near Interstate 40 and about 40 miles west of Albuquerque.

“While we have pleaded with the Indian Health Service in letters, emails and phone calls to reverse its decision and restore the hospital to full operational capacity, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” Vallo said. “We have been given one bureaucratic excuse after another for the agency’s unconscionable decision.”

In this March 21, 2019 file photo, Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo poses outside the Pueblo's cultural center about 60 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. A ceremonial shield at the center of a yearslong international debate over exporting of sacred Native American objects to foreign markets has returned to New Mexico. U.S. and Acoma Pueblo officials planned Monday, Nov. 18 to announce the shield’s return from Paris, where it had been listed for bidding in 2016 before the EVE auction house took the rare step of halting its sale. “It will be a day of high emotion and thanksgiving,” Vallo said ahead of the shield’s expected return to his tribe. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)

In November, IHS Director Michael Weahkee said the Acoma hospital changes were related to self-governance and self-determination by nearby Laguna Pueblo, which in July requested a health care facility be built on its pueblo with federal funding allocated for Laguna. The new health clinic would offer similar services. Weahkee said IHS had been in consultation with Acoma and the service would provide a hospital service redesign.

Indian Health Service spokesman Joshua Barnett said Friday the agency remains committed to providing comprehensive care to Acoma patients but acknowledged that permanent changes would be coming.

Concerns about the hospital's future began last year after the Indian Health Service received a proposal from Laguna Pueblo, which had plans to open a new health clinic offering similar services.

Citing a reduction in funds for federally operated programs, the agency indicated at the time that it would redesign what would be offered at Acoma and began notifying employees — prompting many to retire, resign or transfer.

The Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit "remains open to provide health care to patients; however it does not currently have sufficient staffing to provide some services," the IHS said in a statement. 

The new health center at Laguna was expected to open in February, but Barnett did not say what the agency was doing to fill the void left by the lack of emergency and in-patient care at Acoma.

The nearest hospital to Acoma and the other pueblos is about an hour drive away in Albuquerque.

Vallo said a man suffering from COVID-19 died before he could be transported to a hospital by emergency staff from a neighboring town 20 miles away, according to Thursday’s news release. No other details were shared about the victim.

“This is such a devastating example of poor judgement by the agency responsible for providing healthcare and emergency services to tribal communities,” Vallo said. “The family is angry and still in disbelief that this could have happened when a hospital was located only minutes away from their home.”

In November, Vallo said the Acoma hospital stopped offering inpatient care and emergency services, and blasted IHS for doing it during a pandemic. Since then, women’s services, optometry, podiatry and pediatrics care have also closed, according to the news release.

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The pueblo said IHS has ignored a federal law that requires the agency to provide Congress a year’s notice and an evaluation of the closure’s impact.

In its statement, IHS noted it has not made any permanent changes to services at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit.

"Notification to Congress is not required for temporary closure of a facility or of any portion of a facility necessary for medical, environmental or safety reasons," the agency said. "As a result of the significant reduction of resources available to the federal program associated with the tribal assumption, the IHS believes that it will be necessary to permanently transform or re-design the IHS Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit. Any permanent closures will be properly communicated to Congress at the appropriate time."

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a Jan. 24 letter to President Joe Biden, asked his administration to intervene.

“This would be concerning during ‘normal’ times but is absolutely devastating during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted American Indians,” Grisham said in a statement.

File: New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on March 18, 2020, during a news conference about the coronavirus pandemic on the floor of the state House of Representatives in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

Gregg Smith, the tribe's Washington, D.C.-based legal counsel, said that model puts more distance between Native Americans and health care.

“If your homeland doesn't have the necessary medical services, in a sense it is not a habitable place at some level," he said. “Federal law says the federal government has to provide to make these reservations habitable and when they pull back, Acoma is less habitable now or will be less habitable when this hospital is downsized, if they succeed.”

Vallo said the Indian Health Service's decision has created what he described as third-world conditions for the tribe. The hospital has been in operation since the mid-1970s. It has 25 in-patient beds and serves around 9,100 tribal citizens from multiple tribes, according to the IHS website.

“No other town, city or civilized country would find this acceptable,” Vallo said. “Yet, it happens way too often in Native American communities.”

Recent Indian Health Service coverage:
Officials question service cuts to pueblo hospital
Birthing center closure: 'My baby and I felt abandoned'
Lawmakers demand answers in birthing center closure
Ex-hospital CEO questions leadership in obstetrics closure

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.

The Associated Press contributed to this report, which has been updated to include information from a Friday press conference.

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