February 17, 2017

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Democrats Secure Exemption from Federal Hiring Freeze for Indian Health Services Staff

WASHINGTON - Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) welcomed news that President Trump's administration will exempt Indian Health Service (IHS) clinical staff from Trump's Jan. 23, 2017, memorandum freezing federal hiring.

The senators wrote President Trump on Feb. 1 to express their concern that a freeze would disproportionately affect American Indians and Alaska Natives and urged him to reconsider the freeze as it applies to Indian programs, including IHS. Read their letter here. On Friday, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials notified the senators that IHS clinical staff, including both direct and indirect patient care services, would be exempt from the freeze. Patient care service positions include physicians, clinical fellows, nurses, therapists and other health care providers. Ancillary mission critical support positions, including food service, housekeeping and medical records administration positions also will be included. Further, the senators were told that the agency has implemented a process to exempt additional IHS staff as needed.

The senators issued the following joint statement: "This exemption is a step in the right direction. Indian Health Services facilities face staff vacancy rates of 20 percent or higher, and a hiring freeze would make these challenges even more severe, further impacting access to health care and even patient health. While we welcome the decision with regard to clinical positions at the Indian Health Service, we remind the president that the U.S. government has a solemn obligation to fulfill its treaty and trust responsibilities for Native peoples. This includes an obligation to provide Native communities with health care - but it also includes education, social services, law enforcement and other essential services. The Bureau of Indian Education had 100 vacancies posted as of the midpoint of the 2016-17 school year. And the staffing shortfall for law enforcement officers in Indian Country has been as high as 50 percent in recent years. Past presidents have found that across-the-board hiring freezes have been ineffective at best. In Tribal communities, a freeze could put people's lives at risk. We remain hopeful that President Trump will reconsider the hiring freeze as it applies to all Indian programs."