Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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At a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday there was a testy exchange between Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and the acting director of the Indian Health Service Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee (Zuni). Tester asked how money can be taken from the budget without hurting the quality of care or staffing at IHS. The Senate video is here.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

A Senate hearing Wednesday on Indian health illustrates the larger problem exactly: How can you strip millions of dollars from a health care system and get better results?

The answer is you cannot.

But that’s not what the Trump administration testified. And it’s not what the Senate leadership is saying about its health care bill. Or the House for that matter.

So they lie. And it’s a lie that is so bold, so outrageous, that it should not told with a straight face. There is no defense. That’s why doctors, governors, hospitals, patients, economists, policy-makers, anyone willing to tell the truth about the destructive nature of these so-called health plans are in the opposition. A recent USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll shows the support for the Senate plan by only 12 percent making it one of the most unpopular bills ever.

And yet the Senate bill is still on the table. A new bill is out today and a vote could come as soon as next week. President Donald J. Trump told a Christian television show that he would be “very angry” if this bill fails.  “I am sitting in the Oval Office with a pen in hand, waiting for our senators to give it to me,” the president said. “It has to get passed. They have to do it. They have to get together and get it done.”

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I have been writing a lot about the GOP plans in the House and Senate. Three recent pieces: The impact on jobs in Indian Country; Trump tells tribal leaders Medicaid cuts will be good; and health care policy is a debate worth having (but this is not that.) And I still find I have something to say because the Senate and House bills are so harmful to Indian Country.

Let’s start with the hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the acting director of the Indian Health Service, testified about the agency’s budget to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, chaired by Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “I am pleased to provide testimony on the President’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Budget Request for the IHS, which will allow us to maintain and address our agency mission to raise the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/ANs) to the highest level,” began his written statement. It gets better: “The Budget reflects the Administration’s high priority commitment to Indian Country, protecting direct health care investments and reducing IHS’s overall program level by only 0.9 percent when compared to the Annualized Continuing Resolution, in the context of an 18 percent reduction within the overall HHS discretionary budget.”

In other words we’re cutting the hell out of all budgets — so be happy with your cuts Indian Country.

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So what if the words “maintain” and “raise” don’t fit with the highest level of health care. It’s no secret that Indian Health is already underfunded.

The measure of that shortage that makes the most sense is to compare spending by IHS to what’s spent by the federal government on federal employees. According to the National Congress of American Indians that measure shows IHS funding at about 60 percent of need.

(Of course you could argue that the U.S. health care system is too expensive. But that’s a different conversation. Reform is not even on the table right now. This whole fight is just about money; money for health care or tax cuts.)

The problem with the Senate hearing and a recent Wall Street Journal article on the failure of the Indian Health Service in the Great Plains is that the Indian Health Service is not what it was. It’s no longer just a government health care agency. In fact most of the agency is a funding mechanism for tribal and non-profit health care facilities.  The congressional oversight needs to be re-imagined to fit both of these missions.

The Journal stories highlighted operational issues in South Dakota and Nebraska that demonstrate a tragic failure. (This is the IHS story most of us already know.) And after years of warning the agency has not come up with a strategy to effectively fix its own management.

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“Because this is our IHS. These are our facilities that are supposed to care for our first people,” Sen. Murkowski said. “And the stories that were detailed were shocking.”

But Sen. Murkowski correctly identified the division within IHS. She told Alaska Public Media that Alaska’s Native health facilities are run by tribes, under contract to the IHS, so their problems aren’t the same. True. But that’s more than half of the system. That’s the story that the Journal did not tell (and do the reporting about why tribes and non-profits are able to deliver better care than the agency itself.)

The answer, in part, take us back to the larger Senate debate. The Alaska Native Medical Center has balanced funding: Money from IHS, aggressive third-party billing from private insurance and especially Medicaid as well as foundation grants. This kind of balance ought to be the future (unless Congress says, “well, let’s fund Indian health at 100 percent of need”) for others across Indian Country.

That’s why the narrative of failure is problematic. It’s true that there is a systemic crisis — especially in the Dakotas. So much so that Montana Sen. Steve Daines has even suggested changing the name of IHS to “Indian Health Suffering.” Old story.

But that’s why there should also be a narrative of success. I, too, would change the name of IHS, but to the Indian Health System. Because parts of that system are excellent and ought to be a model for health care, period.

And that’s where Medicaid comes into the picture. At the Senate hearing there was frustration because IHS did not provide enough data.

The IHS budget calls for $1.2 billion in third-party billing. Most of that is Medicaid. That will work for next year. But it’s important to remember the House and Senate plans will cap and reduce what is spent on Medicaid. Right now: If a person is eligible, the money  is there. Under the GOP alternative there will be a set amount of some kind. The money will run out.

But IHS officials did not talk about Medicaid much. And Montana Sen. Jon Tester pointed out:  “I think it’s absolutely unbelievable that you can’t separate how much Medicaid has helped your with third-party billing.” This is is what we need to know.

The Indian Health Service operates in both Medicaid and Medicaid expansion states. Remember not every state expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (To date: Thirty one states and Washington, D.C. are on board). For example: South Dakota did not and North Dakota did. So we ought to have data about how much Medicaid money goes into the system, for what kind of patents, and how it’s used (hint: by law it’s supposed to remain at the local service unit.) We should have similar data for tribal or non-profit facilities. Life-saving data.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a report earlier this week that highlighted the connection between Medicaid and Indian Health. “The Medicaid expansion has improved access to care for thousands of American Indians and Alaska Natives especially in states with large AI/AN populations including Alaska, Arizona, and New Mexico. It has also provided much-needed revenue to Indian Health Service (IHS) and Tribally operated facilities, allowing them to expand services and hire and retain more staff. Ending Medicaid expansion would jeopardize coverage for these newly insured low-income AI/AN adults, and reduce revenue for IHS and Tribally operated facilities, forcing them to revert to pre-ACA service levels.”

In Montana, a state that recently expanded Medicaid, more than 11,000 American Indians have signed up for the insurance. “At a time when Montana is working in a bipartisan basis to address the suicide epidemic and improving health outcomes for American Indians, D.C. politicians are threatening to take away health insurance for thousands of Americans Indians in Montana,” said Heather Cahoon, State Tribal Policy Analyst for the Montana Budget and Policy Center. “More than 11,000 American Indians in Montana now have access to health insurance through our bi-partisan Medicaid expansion plan, and we can’t afford to go back.”

But going back is on the Senate agenda today. The Republican caucus is counting votes to see if a compromise is possible within their own ranks. The bill will be released, scored by the Congressional Budget Office, and, if Sen. Mitch McConnell gets his way, there will be a vote early next week.

But the facts are this: The Senate bill still strips $700 billion from Medicaid. And that number will grow over time. And the Trump administration is cutting from the already underfunded Indian Health Service budget by 6 percent. Now. That, too, will get worse down the road.

And so there will be many lies flying fast. It’s a health care bill. Or this legislation won’t take away your insurance. Medicaid will be better off. So will the patients. Whatever. The Congressional Budget Office is wrong. Then there’s that forever lie: That United States is meeting its solemn treaty promises to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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