Shutdown puts strain on services for Indian tribes


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The fallout from the federal government shutdown is hurting Native Americans as dwindling funds impede access to health care and other services. The pain is particularly deep in tribal communities with high rates of poverty and unemployment, where one person often supports an extended family.

The partial government shutdown has slipped into the record books as the longest ever.

Members of Congress are out of town and no negotiations are expected.

President Donald Trump is not telling him whether he will move forward with an emergency declaration that could break the deadlock and free up money for his wall without congressional approval.

Such a move would spark legal challenges and a political storm. A day earlier, he said he wasn’t ready to do it “just yet”.

Lawmakers are expected to return to Washington from their states and congressional districts in the new week.

The effects, meanwhile, are felt everywhere.

In New Mexico, a lone police officer patrolled an Indian reservation larger than Houston on a shift that normally has three people, responding to multiple car crashes during a snowstorm, emergency calls and to requests for control of social assistance.

Elsewhere, federally-funded road maintenance programs operate with small crews and struggle to keep roads clear on remote reservations. Tribal members said they could not be referred for specialist care by the Indian Health Service if their conditions were not life-threatening.

The tribes rely heavily on funding secured through treaties with the United States, acts of Congress, and other agreements for public safety, social services, education, and health care for their members. Due to the shutdown, tribal officials say some programs are on the verge of collapse and others are surviving as tribes fill funding gaps.

About 9,000 Indian health service workers, or 60%, are working without pay and 35% are working with funding sources unaffected by the shutdown, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ shutdown plan. This includes staff providing direct patient care. The agency provides health care to approximately 2.2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The agency receives money from the Ministry of the Interior, whose budget is cut by the closure. For many tribesmen, this is the only option for health care, unless they want to pay out of pocket or have other insurance. Benefits from programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are not affected by the partial government shutdown.

Much of the administrative work at the Indian Health Service has come to a standstill, and while most did not have an immediate effect on health care delivery, some patients experienced delays.

Clara Pratte’s mother, 68, had surgery to clear the vision in one of her eyes earlier this month, but the Navajo woman was unable to get a referral for an appointment. followed after pressure built up in his eye.

“We’re managing, but it’s a question of when the government might reopen to have it assessed by a specialist,” Pratte said.

In Washington state, the Seattle Indian Health Board plans to cut services if the federal shutdown continues for more than a week or two. Disappearing programs include an inpatient treatment center for chemical addiction and a traditional medicine program that includes a sweat lodge, storytelling and drumming to help those recovering, said Aren Sparck, head of government affairs.

About a quarter of the organization’s funding comes from the Indian Health Service, he said.

Indian Health Service spokesman Joshua Barnett said tribal health programs and those in urban areas can continue to operate, but the agency cannot fund them during the shutdown.

Leaders of Indian organizations wrote to Congress on Thursday outlining the impact of the shutdown on their communities, including on education, housing programs, child welfare and economic development.

“The long-term effects of this shutdown will ripple through our communities for months, if not years, after government reopens,” reads the letter released by the National Congress of American Indians.

Michelle Begay was fired from her administrative job at the Indian Health Service at the end of December and said she could not seek work in the same field under agency regulations.

She doesn’t know how she’s going to pay for her daughter’s parking pass to college or a plane ticket to Chicago to see her son graduate from a naval academy next month without dipping into her savings. If she does, she may not be able to cover her house payment and utilities beyond January.

Begay had also applied for health insurance through her employer before the New Year to avoid high deductibles on her husband’s plan, but the paperwork was not processed due to the shutdown. She recently paid $600 to be seen for bronchitis, but couldn’t cover the costs when she was hit in a second fight. She went to an Indian Health Service clinic after calling for three days for an appointment.

“I was very lucky, my situation was treatable,” she said. “My lung didn’t collapse, that’s what they were really concerned about. But, still, I had to wait two, almost three days to be seen.”

Another federal agency serving Indians, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, was to lay off nearly 2,300 of its roughly 4,060 workers, according to its contingency plan. A spokeswoman for the agency did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, tribal communities were trying to help furloughed workers.

The Mescalero Apache in south-central New Mexico offered jobs to people at its casino and ski lodge. The Navajo Nation Electric Company says it will work with any furloughed employees who are struggling to pay their bills.

As the shutdown now enters its third week, the pressure on the tribes is expected to increase.

Gabe Aguilar, vice president of Mescalero Apache, said a winter storm in late December dumped more than a meter of snow on the mountain reservation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs directs the police force there, laying off much of the staff and limiting its ability to respond to calls, Aguilar said.

In one case, worried relatives of an elderly man asked police to watch him because they couldn’t get out of their own driveway, Aguilar said. By the time authorities arrived at his home, Aguilar said the man was dead. He stopped short of blaming the federal shutdown.

“I don’t want to participate in a finger-pointing contest because right now everyone is grieving,” he said. “It happened, however, a senior died. It’s tough, it’s hard work and I wouldn’t say what could have been.”

Democratic members of Congress, including U.S. Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, cited the man’s death as an example of the impacts being felt across Indian Country.

“Every day, the president continues to treat tribal public health and safety programs as hostages for political purposes putting families across Indian Country at risk,” Udall said in the Senate this week.

Javier Kinney, executive director of the Yurok Tribe in northwestern California, said the tribe is about 90% funded by federal grants and stretches its budget and uses financial reserves to provide services to its 6,200 members. He said the tribe will have to cut workers’ hours or lay them off if funding isn’t restored soon.

“Democrats and Republicans should not view this as a partisan issue when it comes to tribal relations or tribal affairs,” he said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”


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