Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, was apoplectic by the time he finished questioning Indian Health Service Acting Director Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, Zuni, during Wednesday’s Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal for IHS.
Tester repeatedly asked Weahkee whether the proposed budget included an increase or a decrease in spending for hiring additional staff, which Weahkee had identified as IHS’s top priority. Despite Tester’s direct questioning, Weahkee simply refused to answer, saying instead that the agency was prioritizing maintaining direct services and that tough decisions had to be made.
By the end of the exchange, Tester was virtually yelling. “I have never had, in 10 years on this committee, I have never had somebody come up here and when I ask them a direct question they don’t answer it. I asked you a direct question on whether this budget was up or down and you would not answer it, you refused to answer it. That is totally unacceptable,” he said.
The proposed budget cuts $300 million from IHS funding. This, combined with cuts to Medicaid included in both the House and Senate versions of bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, could have a devastating impact on Indian health in general and the Indian Health Service in particular.
Another question from Tester that Weahkee refused to answer was how much IHS had received in Medicaid reimbursements, even though that number is public information. In 2016, IHS informed ICMN a few weeks ago, the agency “collected over $659 million in reimbursements for services provided by IHS federal government facilities and programs to IHS patients who are also enrolled in Medicaid. This comprised over two-thirds of total third-party reimbursements to IHS that year.”
Tester expressed outrage that Weahkee seemed to be refusing to advocate for Indian people’s health and welfare, leaving senators with no way to argue for rejecting the president’s cuts. “If you guys don’t advocate for a budget how the hell are we supposed to fix it?” he asked.
One of the most disturbing consequences of Weahkee’s testimony was embodied in Tester’s final comments on his performance during the hearing, which was evocative of the all-too-common stance of blaming Indians for failed federal Indian policy. “Indian health services is in a crisis and if you have served in Indian Health services for 10 years and you have answered the questions in Indian health service like you have here today, there is no wonder it is in a crisis,” said Tester.