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‘I’m distrustful’: As government temporarily reopens, Native communities try to recover

Calls for mandatory Indian Health Service funding grow.

A view of Capitol Hill while the US government prepares for a temporary three-week reopening January 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A view of Capitol Hill while the US government prepares for a temporary three-week reopening January 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

With the federal government reopened for now, the impacts of the last month are slowly beginning to reveal themselves. What’s known so far is that the longest-ever partial government shutdown cost the U.S. economy $3 billion and created a massive Internal Revenue Service backlog in the midst of tax season.

Native communities too are trying to assess the damage done, as they depend on a wide range of federal services due to U.S. treaty obligations. Given that the government is only slated to be open for the next three weeks, with the president already calling for another shutdown to get funding for his border wall, these communities feel wary.

“I’m distrustful,” said Kerry Hawk Lessard, executive director or Native American Lifelines, an Indian Health Service (IHS) contractor.

“When we know for sure that the government is open for more than three weeks, then we can do some planning and breathe a sigh of relief. But knowing the government is open for three weeks, it is not responsible to obligate money and make plans,” she told ThinkProgress by phone.

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This means the Baltimore-based nonprofit, which dispenses a variety of health services to Native Americans, isn’t providing as much assistance as it had before the shutdown. While it’s resuming payments for chronic health care treatments, like those for diabetes or high blood pressure, Native American LifeLines is unable to offer eviction prevention support or pay for gas or electric bills (and it’s well-documented that housing affects health). When the government reopened on Friday, the group was able to pay for all its missed purchase of payer requests, except housing-assistance payments.

The group’s dental care services are still pared down, but mental health services that halted have continued. The shutdown also means that Native American Lifelines’ hiring freeze is still ongoing even though it has three open positions.

“We’re trying to be very conservative until we know for sure… We just don’t want to be in a position where we face layoffs again,” said Lessard.

Uncertainty continues for IHS providers as well. It hasn’t been made clear to IHS medical providers who worked while the agency was unfunded when they’ll be paid back, as there’s been minimal communication from headquarters to clinics across the country, said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe and board member of the National Congress of American Indians.

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“They have mortgages — they had to take out loans in order to be able to make their payments,” he told ThinkProgress, referring to two of his tribal members who are health directors for IHS clinics in Michigan.

“They are happy that it’s reopened and that they are going to get their next paycheck. But there’s a lot of continuing distrust and fear in Indian tribes. Indian people had the experience of the trail of broken treaties, and so there’s already a level of distrust of the federal government.” 

Both Lessard and Payment stressed that the way the federal government can earn the trust of native communities is by passing legislation to exempt tribes from shutdowns (and sequestration) by making funding mandatory and appropriated in advance. There’s existing legislation to do this, but the question is whether there’s appetite to pass it in Congress.

Payment also said many tribal leaders worry that President Donald Trump could target their funding in the future, as he’s proven himself “vindictive and vengeful.” At a tribal meeting last week, he asked leaders to “gather input on impacts of tribes and a lot of tribal leaders are reluctant to share it because they’re worried,” adding that “they’re fearful that the administration is going to punish them.”

For this and countless other reasons, mandatory funding is essential. It’s particularly important because, as Payment put it, “we don’t want to lose medical staff.” If this is a reoccurring problem — perhaps in three weeks — the fear is providers will look for other employment opportunities. IHS providers aren’t paid as well as others, so interrupted payments just exacerbate an existing issue, said Payment.

“It seems like a month of our lives was lost and we’ll never get it back,” he said.