June 13, 2017

VIDEO: Udall Raises Concerns about Majority-Sponsored Bills on NAHASDA, IHS at Indian Affairs Committee Hearing

VIDEO: https://www.indian.senate.gov/hearing/legislative-hearing-receive-testimony-following-bills-s-1250-s-1275

WASHINGTON — Today, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, raised concerns about two bills offered by committee Republicans affecting the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) and the Indian Health Service (IHS) during a legislative hearing. Udall questioned witnesses before the Indian Affairs Committee about how these bills — S. 1275 and S. 1250 — could unfairly exclude Native Hawaiians from the critical housing services offered under NAHASDA and fail to address the root causes of IHS challenges, respectively.

“The issues presented in these bills are important to Indian Country and reflect our shared priorities on this committee. In fact, each bill is important enough to merit its own hearing,” Udall said, going on to point out his serious concerns about how both measures would affect Native housing and health care. “These bills would have real and long-lasting impacts on Indian Country, and deserve a thorough vetting to ensure that the final product reflects the meaningful consideration of Indian Country’s concerns,” Udall argued.

"NAHASDA is critically important. The overwhelming need for adequate, safe, and sanitary housing in all Native communities is well-documented. But that’s just as true for Native Hawaiian homesteads as it is for reservations, Pueblos, and Alaska Native villages.” Udall said. But the majority bill fails to reauthorize Title VIII programs in NAHASDA that provide critical housing services to Native Hawaiians. The exclusion of Native Hawaiians in the NAHASDA reauthorization is particularly concerning given President Trump’s recent signing statement, which "called into doubt the legality of federal housing programs for Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians,” Udall said.

In response to questions from Udall about the exclusion of Native Hawaiians in the majority bill, Liana Onnen, an Area Vice President with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), said that “we are concerned about the message it may send, by condoning separate treatment of different Native communities within the United States. It begins to, in essence, create potential classes of Native Americans, and I think that is a concern at NCAI."

"We must do all we can to make sure NAHASDA is fully reauthorized for all Native communities that rely on its housing programs,” Udall responded, committing to work on a bipartisan basis to find a workable path forward.

Udall expressed similar concerns about the majority-led bill to reform IHS, which would “impose sweeping reforms on the Indian Health Service,” Udall said. Udall said he shares "the goals of achieving accountability, strengthening the workforce, and improving quality of care at IHS. The healthcare crisis facing many IHS facilities in the Great Plains and throughout Indian Country is a concern this committee takes seriously.”

Udall noted that Senate Republicans are currently moving forward with legislation — the so-called American Health Care Act (AHCA) — to repeal the Medicaid expansion, which would be devastating to health care in Indian Country. And he recalled that in a previous Indian Affairs Committee hearing, IHS Acting Director Chris Buchanan testified that third party payments from Medicaid, made possible by the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) Medicaid expansion, are critical to expanding health care services offered by IHS in Indian Country.

“It's clear to me that any potential changes to the national policy regarding Medicaid and heath insurance programs like those contained in the AHCA will directly impact Tribal communities and Native lives,” Udall said. "So, for the record, I would like to urge the majority — on all committees — to follow regular order, hold hearings, and seek Tribal consultation on any proposal that would cut access to life-saving health coverage programs.”

But Udall cautioned, “We must do more beyond tinkering with federal employment law to address the need for transparency and quality assurance. We must also take care not to jettison well-established constitutional protections in the process of holding IHS leadership and staff accountable at every level. And let’s not overlook the fact that for decades Tribal health care programs have been severely underfunded, which I believe has contributed greatly to the healthcare crisis we’re in today.”

Udall questioned witnesses about whether S.1250 would address the root cause of employee accountability issues at IHS. Max Stier, President of the Partnership for Public Service, testified that the employment reform provisions of S.1250 found in Section 106 of the bill “will not bring real accountability.” Stier continued, “Section 106 also presents a potential constitutional issue.”

Victoria Kitcheyan, Tribal Council Treasurer of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, said that any bill affecting IHS must include full Tribal consultation, and strong funding to support IHS improvements. "This legislation should not be enacted without the proper consultation of all of Indian Country,” Kitcheyan said.

Below is a full transcript of Udall’s opening remarks at the legislative hearing.

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for calling this legislative hearing today on S. 1250, S. 1275, and S. 1333.
The issues presented in these bills are important to Indian Country and reflect our shared priorities on this committee.

In fact, each bill is important enough to merit its own hearing.

S. 1250 would impose sweeping reforms on the Indian Health Service;

S. 1275 would reauthorize certain housing programs created by the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act – while imposing changes to that law’s training and technical assistance program and environmental review processes;

And S. 1333 would authorize the Tribal HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program and ensure that our Native veterans receive the housing benefits they so assuredly deserve.

These bills would have real and long-lasting impacts on Indian Country, and deserve a thorough vetting to ensure that the final product reflects the meaningful consideration of Indian Country’s concerns.

I encourage all stakeholders present at this hearing, as well as those listening online, to submit statements for the record. Your input matters.

Touching briefly on S. 1250, I share the goals of achieving accountability, strengthening the workforce, and improving quality of care at IHS.

The healthcare crisis facing many IHS facilities in the Great Plains and throughout Indian Country is a concern this committee takes seriously.

But we must do more beyond tinkering with federal employment law to address the need for transparency and quality assurance. We must also take care not to jettison well-established constitutional protections in the process of holding IHS leadership and staff accountable at every level. And let’s not overlook the fact that for decades Tribal health care programs have been severely underfunded, which I believe has contributed greatly to the healthcare crisis we’re in today.

I look forward to working with Senator Barrasso and the chairman to make sure this bill addresses IHS issues identified by all Tribes and patients in an effective way.

With regard to S. 1275, Mr. Chairman, you and I know that NAHASDA is critically important. The overwhelming need for adequate, safe, and sanitary housing in all Native communities is well-documented. But that’s just as true for Native Hawaiian homesteads as it is for reservations, pueblos, and Alaska Native villages.

Given that understanding, I was concerned to see that S. 1275 does not include a reauthorization of Title VIII. But I will defer to my colleague, Senator Schatz, to explain why carving out Native Hawaiian programs from this bill sets a dangerous precedent for his constituents and Indian Country as a whole.

We must do all we can to make sure NAHASDA is fully reauthorized for all Native communities that rely on its housing programs.

Now, turning to Senator Tester’s Tribal veteran housing bill. I’m proud to join him, V.A. Committee Chair Senator Isakson, and Chairman Hoeven to sponsor this bill.

It’s a powerful message to bring together bipartisan leadership from two Senate committees in support of one goal – better serving Native veterans.

S. 1333 represents all the good that can happen when members from both sides of the aisle listen to Indian Country and work together to advance Tribal priorities.

This body has a rich history of acknowledging that Native issues can rise above beltway party politics. Indeed, I’m reminded this committee accomplishes so much more when it works from the viewpoint that Indian issues are largely bipartisan.

I look forward to continuing this tradition and honoring the special political and trust relationship the United States has with all its indigenous peoples.

It is clear to me that any potential changes to national policy regarding Medicaid and health insurance programs – like those contained in the AHCA – will directly impact Tribal communities and Native lives.

So, for the record, I would like to urge the majority – on all Committees – to follow regular order, hold hearings, and seek Tribal consultation on any proposal that would cut access to life-saving health care programs.