Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Holds Hearing to Consider Nomination of Rear Admiral Weahkee as the Next Director of Indian Health Service

Following hearing, Indian Affairs Committee must vote on whether to report Weahkee's nomination favorably to full Senate

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Shervin Aazami 202-507-4088

Rear Admiral Michael D. Weahkee Testifies before Senate Committee on Indian Affairs after being Nominated to Serve as Director of Indian health Service

WASHINGTON, DC—December 11, 2019— Today, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) held a hearing to confirm Rear Admiral (RADM) Michael D. Weahkee to serve as the next Director of the Indian Health Service (IHS). As NIHB previously reported, RADM Weahkee was formally nominated by President Trump to serve as the next IHS Director on October 22. Should Weahkee be confirmed, it will be the first time IHS will have a Senate-confirmed Director since 2015.

"I promise to be guided by the core values of integrity and transparency," said Weahkee in his opening testimony, who was joined by his family and several senior IHS officials. RADM Weahkee fielded questions from Committee members about how, under his leadership, IHS can effectively address many of its long-standing challenges in providing quality and comprehensive health services - from the lack of federal housing for clinicians, to deficiencies with water and sanitation infrastructure, to reoccurring cuts to IHS funding proposed in the President's recent budget requests to Congress.

However, the vast majority of Senator's questions were focused on IHS's chronic issues with provider recruitment and retention. As reported by the Government Accountability Office, IHS overall has an average 20% provider vacancy rate, with some IHS Areas having vacancy rates as high as 31%. "How will you ensure all [IHS] healthcare professionals are credentialed and in good standing?" asked Chairman John Hoeven (R-ND), to which Weahkee responded by highlighting agency efforts to establish a centralized credentialing system and to create a stronger culture of transparency within the IHS.

When asked by Vice-Chairman Tom Udall (D-NM) about some of the biggest barriers to provider recruitment and retention, Weahkee highlighted the fact that the IHS Loan Repayment Program and scholarship programs remain subject to crippling federal taxes, which currently consume roughly a fifth of program dollars. Weahkee also noted the fact that IHS compensation and benefits packages are not competitive when compared to those available at the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) or the private sector. Multiple Committee members pressed the Rear Admiral to be a fierce advocate for Indian health within both the Department of Health and Human Services and the entire Administration, encouraging him to do more to build stronger partnerships with sister federal agencies.

For example, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) stressed the need for IHS to leverage resources from the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency to build critical water and sanitation infrastructure, specifically referencing the severe needs within Alaskan Native villages. Facing several questions about budget cuts and the impact of the 35-day federal government shutdown, RADM Weahkee reiterated his support for advance appropriations for IHS, responding to the question from Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) that he will continue to share the "...impacts of what not having advance appropriations would do to [IHS]" with top HHS officials.

The hearing was immediately preceded by a business meeting and vote on S. 2365 - Health Care Access for Urban Native Veterans Act of 2019 and S. 1853 - BADGES for Native Communities Act. Both bills were passed unanimously by voice vote and will now go before the full Senate for consideration.

Next Steps
Overall, RADM Weahkee's nomination hearing was met very favorably by Committee members. The next step will be for the Committee to vote on whether to favorably report RADM Weahkee's nomination to the full Senate for consideration. A timeline for that has not yet been announced, but with limited time before Congress recesses for the holidays next Friday, it is likely that a confirmation vote will come in the new year. NIHB will provide timely updates as they become available.

For more information about NIHB’s legislative efforts, please contact NIHB Deputy Director of Congressional Relations, Shervin Aazami, at saazami@nihb.org

###



National Indian Health Board |  www.nihb.org
910 Pennsylvania Avenue SE | Washington, DC 20003 | Phone: 202-507-4070