WASHINGTON, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley—who serves as Chair of the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee—led the Subcommittee’s first hearing of the 117th Congress today, focusing on addressing health disparities in Indian Country in the context of the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) coronavirus response, and future needs of the IHS.
IHS Acting Director Elizabeth Fowler and her Chief Financial Officer Jillian Curtis each appeared virtually to provide testimony.
“For generations, Tribal communities have grappled with extreme health disparities that have resulted from the United States’ long, disturbing history of broken promises and bad faith deals with Tribes,” said Merkley. “The pandemic has only made those disparities worse. But this year, under enormous pressure and with support from Congress, IHS deserves a lot of credit for outpacing the national average when it came to an effective, efficient vaccine distribution plan in partnership with Tribes and Urban Indian Organizations, despite unique barriers like reaching remote areas. That success must become the new standard for the IHS, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with today’s witnesses about what we can accomplish together—on everything from addressing the underlying causes of health disparities, to strengthening vital infrastructure—when we provide the agency with the funding these efforts need and deserve.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the coronavirus incidence rate for Native Americans is approximately 379 cases per 100,000 individuals—a rate nearly two times higher than the national average. The prevalence of coronavirus cases among Native communities mirrors disparities in access to basic infrastructure, including good education, safe and reliable housing, clean drinking water, and health care—all of which contribute to health outcomes and life expectancy. Merkley emphasized throughout the hearing the urgent need to make critical investments to improve those health determinants—and asked Acting Director Fowler about how IHS programs are working to address them.
In addition, Merkley asked Acting Director Fowler what the IHS is doing to support the mental health of Native students, including the students at the Chemawa School in Salem, and how the Service is supporting health care workers to ensure consistent and reliable care.
Merkley also pressed Acting Director Fowler regarding what steps must be taken to improve the water infrastructure situation at the Warm Springs reservation in Oregon, where outdated water treatment and distribution systems have led to unsafe drinking water, pressure relief valve failures, and burst pipes.
Merkley also conveyed his concerns over the handling of two important issues of accountability at IHS. Merkley asked Acting Director Fowler whether the agency would be releasing an internal report that looked into the agency’s handling of a pediatrician who sexually abused Native American children in his care. Merkley also questioned whether the agency has internal review mechanisms to find waste, fraud, and abuse within their procurement policies, following an incident where IHS purchased $3 million in faulty masks from a former Trump official who became a government contractor 11 days after he started the company.
A video recording of the hearing is available here.