Native health officials hope for changes to avert future shutdown woes

While Congress appears to have reached an agreement this week that could avert a federal government shutdown, the Seattle Indian Health Board says changes to federal law could avert future closures that affect health care for Native Americans.

During the three-week shutdown break, the organization’s clinic did not reopen all of its programs, because officials didn’t want to risk reopening its major services only to close them down again.

“The guarantee of three weeks only means that we can draw on the federal contracts that were left unpaid,” said SIHB’s CEO, Esther Lucero, in a statement on their website.

But the organization hopes that federal lawmakers take action beyond approving a budget to avoid future disruptions to Native health programs. 

Seattle Indian Health Board is a private, non-profit organization that offers health-related programs for the Native American community in and around Seattle and King County and primary healthcare services that are open to Native Americans and the general public. It serves over 6,000 patients in the area.

One-fourth of the Seattle Indian Health Board’s funding comes from the Indian Health Services. The Seattle Indian Health Board was one of the direct service providers that was first hit when the shutdown happened last month. The shutdown put almost 30 percent of SIHB’s employees, and a number of their services, at risk of getting cut.

During the temporary reopening of the federal government, the clinic opened on weekdays, but kept its Saturday clinic shut, which affected patients who don’t have time during the week to drop in and receive healthcare services. SIHB also had to reduce the number of beds in their treatment center by over half.

The organization has still not received payment for programs it operated in the months of November and December, and may never will, according to SIHB Government Affairs Officer, Aren Sparck.

But they say a bill introduced last month in the Senate would allow these programs to get funding before the money is spent, which would relieve some uncertainty for Native programs, even if there were a federal government shutdown.

“It would authorize advance appropriations of funds, mitigating the effects of appropriation lapses, which have significantly impacted Indian Health Service (IHS) and health care programs that receive IHS funding, as well as some programs funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education,” Seattle Indian Health Board  Government Affairs Manager, Francesca Murnan, said in an email.

The bill, S.229 Indian Programs Advance Appropriations Act (IPAAA), was introduced by Sen. Tom Udall, (D-New Mexico).

If this week’s compromise bill doesn’t pass and the shutdown resumes, the organization isn’t planning on turning their patients away during another shutdown. However, an event like this might be tough to weather again and lead the organization to layoff a good amount of its employees.

Because of the history Native Americans have with this country, they place more trust in their own people, Sparck said. SIHB is failing them as a resource because of the shutdown.

One program that has been directly affected has been theTraditional Medicine Program. The program offers healthcare based on Indigenous knowledge of healing practices to promote health and well-being to patients.

The Seattle Indian Health Board was able to keep that program and its Elders Program open through a grant from the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. The grant allowed both programs operate for 15 weeks without federal funding, according to SIHB’s press release.

“It’s very important that we keep the Elders Program running,” Sparck said. “Elders are a treasured resource.”