Indian Health Service suffers from same problems as Veterans Affairs


Despite vows to make much-needed improvements earlier this year, the federal government’s Indian Health Service (IHS) suffers from deep-rooted problems that parallel those of the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Investigators have found the IHS suffers from broken or obsolete emergency-resuscitation devices, unsanitary conditions in facilities, pediatric misdiagnoses and inability to dispense basic drugs, write Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wy.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and John Thune (R-S.D.) The IHS’ problems have led to multiple Statements of Deficincies from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services over the years. Four Great Plains IHS facilities in particular were identified as putting patients in “immediate jeopardy,” they noted.

Numerous problems faulted for the ongoing VA scandal, such as a cronyism and lack of accountability, persist within the IHS as well, according to Barrasso and Thune. The investigation also turned up no evidence that poorly performing employees were sanctioned or fired even after tribal leaders wrote to the Department of Health and Human Services to identify and complain about them, much like the VA has dragged its feet on dismissing poor performers. When they are fired, the hiring process is so involved that facilities must use expensive, temporary replacements in the meantime.

Tribal leaders told investigators that to address these issues, the IHS must enforce mandatory reporting for patient safety violations and retaliation against whistleblowers. IHS hospitals should also be required to immediately fill vacancies with permanent employees. Barrasso and Thune have introduced legislation that would improve transparency and hiring processes while streamlining the discipline process and protecting whistleblowers. “Although its employees deserve support and assistance, the agency has lacked competent and accountable leadership for far too long,” they write.

 - read the column