During Pandemic, Senate Confirms Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, Zuni, to Lead IHS

Rear Admiral Michael D. Weahkee, has been confirmed as director of IHS. (Photo Courtesy Senate Committee on Indian Affairs)

With unanimous support from not only the U.S. Senate, but dozens of Tribal Nations, Tribal organizations, and Indian health organizations, Rear Admiral Michael D. Weahkee, an enrolled member of the Zuni Tribe, was confirmed as director of the Indian Health Service on April 21, 2020.

“Admiral Weahkee has already demonstrated strong leadership at the helm of the Indian Health Service. I congratulate him on being formally confirmed to the position of IHS Director and thank the Senate for confirming him during this crucial time,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a statement. “He has played a vital role in improving quality across IHS and strengthening our government-to-government relationship with Tribes. As we combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already posed a serious threat to Indian Country, I am thankful to have Admiral Weahkee leading IHS and overseeing the work being done by heroic IHS staff on the front lines.”

“Rear Admiral Weahkee is a strong leader, who has committed to help the agency fulfill its treaty and trust responsibilities to the many American Indian and Alaskan Natives receiving health care services from the IHS. Especially, in light of the outbreak of COVID-19, the IHS must continue to quickly respond to the needs of Tribal communities and the experienced leadership of Rear Admiral Weahkee is greatly needed during these times,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said.

Even though Weahkee has served at IHS for 14 years, he still faces an uphill battle as IHS director, a position that has not had a confirmed leader since 2015 when Yvette Roubideaux, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was forced to step down

The Indian Health Service is responsible for providing health care services to more than 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. Within the service, there are 605 hospitals in 37 states operating under a budget of $7.4 billion; and IHS has its share of scandal for Weahkee to contend with.

Stanley Patrick Weber, a former U.S. government pediatrician, who spent decades bouncing around IHS hospitals, was convicted in September 2019 of sexually abusing young Native American boys on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. An investigation by PBS Frontline and The Wall Street Journal noted how Weber was able to stay employed by IHS even after fellow employees raised concerns about his behavior.

During a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in December 2019, Weahkee was asked how he might handle future staff complaints, and he said: “Those types of activities are absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” Weahkee vowed to set a “tone at the top” where transparency and openness would be key values at the IHS. “We cannot risk any harm to our patients.”

Weakhee also told the committee back in December 2019 that he planned to address staffing, recruitment, funding, management and other issues that have hindered the health care of Native Americans. Hindrances include lost certification and understaffing at IHS facilities.

In 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services terminated federal certification for the Omaha-Winnebago Hospital in Nebraska, citing major lapses in patient care.

“We cannot solve everything at once, but we can make a positive, real and lasting difference in the lives and health of our patients,” Weahkee said in his opening statement in December 2019. “And we can make what some say is impossible, possible.”

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, also pointed out how other regions have fared during the hearing in December 2019. He specifically mentioned the facility that once served Pueblo and Navajo patients in New Mexico that was forced to shut down its emergency room and urgent care units because the IHS could not find any staff to work there.

Understaffing is an issue in many IHS facilities. According to a PBS report, an IHS hospital in Rosebud, South Dakota went through six CEOs since 2016, and noted a 40 percent vacancy for nurses in May 2019. But it sounds like Weahkee has a plan for the Indian Health Service.

“In partnership with Tribes and Urban Indian Organizations, we have developed a comprehensive and aggressive five-year strategic plan for the IHS, focused on expanding access to care, improving the quality of care that we provide, and improving the management and operations of the Agency,” Weahkee said in his statement. “In the past two years we have made significant strides to remove the Indian Health Service from the Government Accountability Office’s High Risk List, implementing 12 of the 14 unimplemented recommendations that helped to land the Agency on the list. We have transitioned the Rosebud Indian Hospital from a facility that was on the brink of decertification by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, to now being fully accredited by the Joint Commission.”

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