‘Visit would be hollow’: Blackfeet decline meeting with national IHS director (Media Share)

Media Share - Blackfeet

This is a media share from a story in the Missoulian article published February 19, 2023. To read the original article on their website click the below link:


Original Article

National Indian Health Service Director Roselyn Tso was supposed to visit the Blackfeet Reservation to tour the hospital and meet with tribal leadership earlier this week — but the trip didn’t happen.

Citing frustration, failed promises and poor communication, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council penned a letter to Tso, saying, “Your visit would be hollow” and that travel funds “could be put to better use for Indian tribes.”

“We don’t understand the purpose for your visit, and we don’t want to waste our time or yours,” the letter reads.

Indian Health Service (IHS) is the federal agency responsible for providing health care to federally recognized tribes, and the agency has long been criticized for being underfunded.

What’s this about?

Councilman Lyle Rutherford said he traveled from Browning to Maryland to meet with IHS officials in February, and when he got there, he said he was told that the meeting “had a hard stop in 30 minutes.”

“They really don’t care about us,” Rutherford said. “That’s my impression of the whole situation. And we’re not the only ones. I’ve talked to other tribes in the state of Montana, and they have the same feeling.”

IHS declined a request to comment.

In their letter to Tso, Blackfeet tribal leaders assert that a former IHS director promised the tribe a wellness center to mitigate harm caused by a former doctor. The letter states their efforts to secure the facility “has born little fruit,” saying in two years, they have only been able to conduct two meetings with IHS.

Former IHS pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber was convicted of sexually abusing young boys in the 1990s on the Blackfeet Reservation.  

According to Blackfeet leadership, former Chairman Tim Davis and former IHS Director Michael Weahkee met in 2019 to discuss the possibility of IHS funding a wellness center to promote healing after the abuse Weber inflicted. The meeting was not recorded, but in a subsequent email correspondence, obtained by Lee Montana newspapers, Davis references “(IHS’) commitment of resources to Blackfeet with respect to the Weber case.”

The tribe has already drafted architectural plans for the center, which they hope will include indoor basketball courts, a swimming pool, medical and behavioral health services, a pharmacy and house tribal health departments.

The Blackfeet also allege in their letter that the tribe sought support from IHS to be included in the Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal. They noted that the budget “did not reflect IHS’s commitment to fund a facility for the Blackfeet Tribe.”

After the Maryland meeting, Rutherford said IHS leaders encouraged the tribe to apply for grants to fund the wellness center.

Tribal leaders wrote they feel that Tso and IHS “have failed to engage with the Blackfeet Tribe at a meaningful level.”

“We have lost youth to suicide as a direct result of IHS intentionally foisting a known child predator upon them. Giving our youth a place to heal seems like a small justice,” the letter reads. “Personal calls apologizing for failing to follow up on calls and provide information are empty and are reminiscent of countless other examples of broken treaties and promises the U.S. federal government continues to peddle as an attempt to atone for the land loss and lives lost.”

In response to the letter, according to email correspondence obtained by Lee Montana newspapers, Tso replied, “Thank you for your communication. I am disappointed that I will not be able to meet with the (Blackfeet) Nation while I am in your area. But, I understand and look forward to future opportunities.”

Rutherford said negotiations between the two entities are “at a halt at this point.”

Marvin Weatherwax, another tribal councilman, was more blunt.

“Until IHS can actually bring something to the table to improve health care on the Blackfeet Reservation, Director Tso’s visit is a poverty tour,” he said in a statement.

‘This matters’

In a 2020 budget request, the National Congress of American Indians said, “Appropriations for the IHS have never been adequate to meet basic patient needs, and health care is delivered in mostly third-world conditions.”

Rutherford has seen it first-hand. He said services are at a “bare minimum” level of care, and appointments are hard to come by.

“People get discouraged,” he said. “They try once or twice to get an appointment. And if they can’t get one, they just go home and try to deal with it at home as much as possible. If they’re on Medicaid and want to go someplace else, there are transportation barriers.”

The nearest hospitals to the Blackfeet Reservation are in Great Falls, 130 miles away, or in Kalispell, 103 miles away.

In 2021, IHS served 80,468 people in Montana, and a recent report from the agency states that past funding for IHS addressed an estimated 48.6% of the health care needs for the population it serves. The agency also struggles with staffing. In the Billings IHS area, which includes service units in Montana and Wyoming, there is a 51% medical officer vacancy rate, 51% nurse vacancy rate and 44% physician assistant vacancy rate.

The Coalition of Large Tribes, an organization that includes the Blackfeet Nation, Crow Tribe and Fort Belknap Indian Community, urged IHS to follow through on its promise to the Blackfeet Nation and wrote that the Blackfeet IHS hospital “has been without a human resources director, whose responsibility is to fill vacancies” at the hospital.

“The vacancies have resulted in the local IHS being depleted to transport patients to Kalispell or Great Falls,” their statement reads.

IHS estimates it would need $49.9 billion to be adequately funded, but this year’s federal budget allocated $7 billion for IHS — a $297 million increase from 2022.

As a result of harmful U.S. policies and discrimination, Native Americans face persistent health and health care disparities. Compared with the rest of the U.S. population, Native Americans have a lower life expectancy and a higher likelihood of dying from COVID-19, diabetes and other unintended injuries. Native people also face high rates of infant mortality, alcohol and substance use disorder, mental illness, suicide, diabetes and obesity.

“This matters because we have a number of individuals who have diabetes, heart disease and various cancers, and we’re trying to look at more of a healthier lifestyle for adults and children,” Rutherford explained. “This (wellness center) would give them a place to gather. With COVID, everybody stayed home, but we’re looking for individuals to come together to communicate thought and have their needs met.”