Sen. Thune pushes for IHS accountability

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. John Thune is taking action.

The South Dakota Republican took to the Senate floor Tuesday in support of a bill he co-sponsored with Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso to address "mismanagement" within the Indian Health Service.

One day after the third IHS hospital in South Dakota was found to have serious deficiencies in the past year, Thune hoped the IHS Accountability Act of 2016 would reform the agency.

The proposed legislation, announced Thursday, would expand the removal and discipline procedures for problem officials within the agency, require tribal consultation prior to the hiring of area directors and improve protection for whistleblowers within the IHS who point out deficiencies causing poor service for the country's Native American population.

Thune hoped the legislation would make the IHS accountable for its actions.

"Unfortunately, Madame President, the Indian Health Service has frequently responded to mismanagement by shifting staff between positions and offices instead of simply firing incompetent staff," Thune said while delivering the speech. "We're not going to clean up the agency's problems that way."

Thune, who visited the Rosebud IHS Hospital in February, spoke of an IHS patient who was sent home from the emergency room only to die two hours later from cardiac arrest and a mother who gave birth on a bathroom floor without medical personnel nearby. Thune also spoke of the lack of clean exam rooms, which he said are a luxury at IHS hospitals, and unsanitized equipment that is a common sight in the Great Plains Area of the IHS, which serves four states and 122,000 Native Americans.

Thune, who grew up in Murdo near the Rosebud Indian Reservation, said the government is failing in its responsibility to its Native American tribes. He said the IHS is also providing less than honest reporting of its inferior service, pointing to a report stating that the issues at the facility were "addressed and abated," which he received mere hours before the Rosebud IHS facility's emergency services were forced to divert patients elsewhere.

Thune continued with a story about a request he made for a status update from the IHS in 2014. The report indicated the Great Plains area IHS facilities had shown "significant improvements." Despite the report, he said the "abysmal" patient care continued.

"I'm pretty sure that sending a man home with bleeding in his brain and having a mother give birth prematurely on a bathroom floor are not signs of significant improvement," Thune said.

The legislation is also meant to improve staff recruitment and retention shortfalls within the agency by allowing the Health and Human Services Secretary to create competitive pay scales and provide temporary housing assistance for medical professionals while also rewarding employees for good performance.

Thune said he's proud of the bill, but he will continue to consult with tribes both in his home state and elsewhere to continue making improvements.

"Our tribes deserve better than what they have been receiving, and I'm not going to rest until all our tribes are getting the quality care that they deserve," he said.

Airline safety

While speaking on the Senate floor, Thune also urged the House of Representatives to pass the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016, which would help boost airline security.

Thune — the chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — spoke in support of the bipartisan bill that passed easily through the Senate in a 95-3 vote in April. In the wake of the wreck of an EgyptAir flight with 66 people on board, Thune said the United States needs to promote safety measures at foreign airports offering direct flights to the United States.

"I believe these provisions in the FAA Reauthorization Bill will help make air travel from foreign countries to the United States safer and more secure," Thune said.

The proposed reauthorization awaiting a House vote would require the Transportation Security Administration to conduct comprehensive risk assessments of foreign airports with direct flights to the United States, clarify the federal and local roles regarding drone use and increase authorized funding for the Airport Improvement Program.

"Every day, countless terrorists are plotting their next attack against the United States," Thune said. "There are measures that we can make today that will help make Americans safer at home and while traveling from destinations abroad."


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