This week from Capitol Hill

ICT Washington

Two oversight hearings impacting Indian Country for the week of Oct. 25 to Nov. 1: ‘Native Veterans’ Access to Healthcare’ and ‘Sexual Harassment at the Department of Interior’

Summary: “Native Veterans’ Access to Healthcare”

Veterans Day is right around the corner and the country is celebrating Native American Heritage Month. With that in mind, it’s important to state that it has been 30 years since a hearing has focused on the healthcare of Native veterans in Washington.

What happened: On Wednesday, October 30, the Subcommittee on Health held an oversight hearing; “Native Veterans’ Access to Healthcare.” The hearing brought tribal leaders and Native organizations representatives to Capitol Hill to examine barriers American Indian and Alaska Native veterans face when trying to receive care from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the Indian Health Service and tribal health systems.

Who testified: Andrew Joseph Jr., Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, Portland Area Representative of the National Indian Health Board; Kevin Allis, Forest County Potawatomi Community, Chief Executive Officer of the National Congress of American Indians; Sonya Tetnowski, Makah Tribe, Chief Executive Officer of the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley; Chief William Smith, Eyak, executive committee member of the Alaska Native Health Board; Chief Marilynn Malerba, Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut, Indian Health Service Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee.

Why it’s important: In her opening remarks, Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, said the hearing was the first time in at least 30 years either chamber held a hearing solely for healthcare needs of Native veterans. Additionally, it was nearly noted by everyone that American Indian and Alaska Natives serve in the United States military at higher rates per capita than any other ethnicity and have fought in all the nation’s wars since the Revolutionary War. Notably absent from the hearing were Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie and Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee. (Side note: Weahkee was nominated for Director of the Indian Health Service by President Donald Trump earlier this week.)

As part of the hearing, the subcommittee wanted to check in on a 2010 Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Indian Health Service that is planned to go under revision this year.

The five goals of the 2010 Memorandum of Understanding, from shared testimony:

  • Increase access to and improve quality of healthcare and services to the mutual benefit of both agencies. Effectively leverage the strengths of the Veterans Affairs and Indian Health Service at the national and local levels to afford the delivery of optimal clinical care.
  • Promote patient-centered collaboration and facilitate communication among Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services, American Indian/Alaska Native veterans, tribal facilities, and Urban Indian clinics.
  • In consultation with tribal nations at the regional and local levels, establish effective partnerships and sharing agreements among Veterans Affairs headquarters and facilities, Indian Health Services headquarters and facilities, tribal facilities, and Urban Indian Health Programs in support of American Indian/Alaska Native veterans.
  • Ensure that appropriate resources are identified and available to support programs for American Indian/Alaska Native veterans.
  • Improve health promotion and disease prevention services to American Indian/Alaska Native veterans to address community-based wellness.

In advocating for Native veterans, tribes and Native organizations called on Congress to continue to improve tribal consultation and government-to-government relations, as well as passing legislation for advanced appropriations for Indian Health Service programs.

Rep. Brownley admitted there was still a long way to go but that hearings like the one that took place this week are a step in the right direction to find out what’s working and what’s not. The subcommittee said they will be watching closely for the revisions to the aforementioned 2010 Memorandum of Understanding.

A recording of the hearing and testimony from the witnesses can be found here. 

Interior 1
(Photo by Jourdan Bennett-Begaye)

Summary: “Sexual Harassment at the Department of Interior”

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, told the room that they are two weeks from the two-year anniversary of the Me Too movement so addressing sexual harassment is “more critical than ever.”

What happened: The subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held an oversight hearing to hear testimonies from three people about “Sexual Harassment at the Department of Interior” on Oct. 30 in Washington, D.C.

Who testified: The three individuals who addressed the subcommittee were Inspector General Mark Greenbalt of the U.S. Department of Interior, Assistant Secretary Susan Combs for the Policy and Management Budget of the U.S. Department of Interior, and Partner and Director of Workplace Culture Consulting Chai Feldblum.

Why it’s important: Dingell said on the record that “The Department of Interior has had a sexual harassment problem and the problem isn’t new. For decades, women and men in our National Parks, refuges and other public lands and offices have not been given the protections they need to do their work free from harm.”

  • She mentioned the 2016 report released by the Inspector General documenting “approximately 15 years of systemic sexual harassment and misconduct in the Grand Canyon National Park.”
  • The Obama administration then put out an anonymous survey to 7,000 Interior employees to see if this was localized to the Grand Canyon or National Parks, or if it was across the Interior.
  • The report found that “Over one-third of Interior employees had been harassed in some way in the past year and nearly 1 out of every 10 had been sexully harassed including both men and women,” Dingell said.
  • Of those employees who were harassed, three-fourths of them chose not to file a complaint. Their top reason being “they didn’t think anything would be done about it,” Dingell said.

Interior’s actions: Dingell said since the report came out, the Interior, under the Trump administration, has done some work. To provide a safer work environment, Greenblatt said they now have an anti-harassment policy, they investigate complaints, conduct surveys, established an advisory hotline, and have a tracking system.

  • Combs said the Interior requires a quarterly action plan, created a policy on the “Prevention and Elimination of Harassing Conduct,” a Workplace Culture Transformation Advisory Council, and a Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey was disseminated.

Then why are we here: More needs to be done according to the Inspector General’s report from July and the subcommittee wanted to hear it on record.

  • Greenblatt said the “necessary information” from the Interior’s investigators and contractors aren’t documented which would help with “potential correction action.” Since it’s missing “no action is taken” and there are no consequences. Along with that, he said the Interior is needs to be more timely with investigations. There’s also the cost of the investigation that “may prevent employees from reporting an incident,” he said.
  • The Interior administered a Work Environment Survey in 2017 for “all employees,” which was “the first of its scope,” because the agency wanted to look at the workplace conditions. It was completed in March 2017.
  • Out of those who responded, 35 percent experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in the 12 months before the survey, more than 20 percent of the employees experienced age-related harassment, 16.5 percent experienced gender-based harassement, 8 percent experienced sexual harassement, and 60.2 percent who experienced harassment did experience it more than once and “had to continue working with the harassing individual.” Survey participants said “making a complaint did not produce any real result -- either no action was taken or they were encouraged to drop the issue.”
  • Combs said another survey was done in May 2019 that showed an improvement in the percentages when compared to the 2017 report.

Legal perspective: “It is obviously of key importance to ensure that illegal harassment, including illegal sexual harassment, does not take place in any workplace,” Feldbulm said. “However, the best way to prevent illegal harassment is to have systems in place that stop low-level misconduct that might not yet rise to the level of illegal conduct.” The attorney shared takeaways from six areas in his report on the “Study of Harassment in the Workplace” as part of the Select Task Force.

  • “The best way to stop harassment in the workplace is to have a culture of safety and respect in which harassment or bullying are understood to be unacceptable and are not tolerated,” he said. That starts from the leadership.
  • Leaders must hold three groups of people accountable: “individual who have been found,” supervisors who received the report about the misconduct, and any person who retaliates.
  • Paying attention to the presence of 12 risk factors and all which leaders can be proactive on.
  • Having “an effective reporting system” that is simple and safe.
  • Another recommendation is to have an anti-harassment training in place.
  • In the last survey conducted by the Interior, Feldblum suggested they include more questions “feeling safe, respected and valued in the workplace,” in addition to the harassment-related questions they had. They could also establish open-ended questions for employees, focus groups, or random interviews to get a better insight of the agency.

Big picture: The Bureau of Indian Affairs falls under the Interior, to which this hearing affects the workplace of BIA employees in Washington, regional offices, and local communities.

Look ahead: The Inspector General said his office will release a report in November about the “Top Management Challenges.” One section of the report will talk about “how the negative effects of harassment are widespread and sap productivity and trust out of an organization.” He also talked about four other things his office is considering.

“Leadership must not only say they are committed, they must show that they are,” Dingell said. “They need to cultivate a culture that promotes diversity and inclusivity across all levels of the workplace but especially in top leadership and management.”

A recording and testimonies can be found on the subcommittee website.

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is the Washington editor for Indian Country Today based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email: jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com.

Kolby KickingWoman is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is Blackfeet/Gros Ventre from the great state of Montana and currently reports and lives in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)

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