December 16, 2019
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to consider Rear Admiral Michael D. Weahkee’s nomination to serve a four-year term as Indian Health Service (IHS) Director. Weahkee, who has led IHS since July 2017, is currently the agency’s Principal Deputy Director.
“IHS has been without a confirmed Director since 2013. Unfortunately, the situation at the Service has grown even more critical in the intervening years. Now, perhaps more than ever, it is imperative that the IHS has a leader at the helm who has the experience and the commitment to bring about real change,” Udall said in his opening statement.
During questioning, Udall pressed Weahkee on recent reports from the Wall Street Journal and other media outlets that documented a link between IHS management issues and patient abuse and mistreatment.
Udall asked, “I wanted to ask you very specifically – if confirmed, will you commit to full transparency with Congress and Tribes on these kinds of issues? And, to working with us to put an end to these abuses?”
“You have my full commitment to transparency and openness. I want to be candid with all the Committee’s requests,” Weahkee responded.
“As an appointee, you will be asked to balance advancing the Administration’s policies with advocating for Indian Country’s priorities at the highest level within the Executive Branch. This balancing act can be difficult to achieve, especially when those two tasks stand in conflict with each other… Will you be a fierce advocate for Indian Country at [the Department of Health and Human Services]? Will you be willing to take on the political leadership to fight for needed resources at IHS?” Udall continued.
Weahkee responded stating that he “will absolutely continue in the same manner I have over the past two plus years to be a very vocal internal advocate within HHS…There’s a lot of education to do. But, I do feel confident that we’re making a lot of progress and that future [Presidential budget] requests are going to demonstrate that.”
Udall further pressed Weahkee for his commitment to fully staffing IHS emergency and urgent care departments across the country in order to keep lifesaving facilities open.
Udall’s question responds to reports that a number of IHS hospitals in New Mexico, and on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, have encountered difficulties recruiting and retaining the qualified medical professionals needed to continue operation of their emergency departments.
“I commit to doing all that we can to ensure that those emergency physicians and emergency nurses are there for our patients,” said Weahkee.
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