Tribe official wants health care through Sanford

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — A tribal president wants to tackle substandard health care on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by kicking out the Indian Health Service and contracting with Sanford Health, a large provider in the Dakotas.

Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele said recently the tribe needs to make clear that health care is still the federal government's obligation, but escape the Indian Health Service.

"I've just got the general idea of better health care, recognizing that the federal government is a failure," Yellow Bird Steele said. "It's not the people in the system, it's the system itself."

His proposal for Sanford Health to take over operations would have to be approved by the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council and could need to go to a referendum, said Councilwoman Sonia Weston, who chairs the tribal council's Health and Human Services Committee. Weston said her panel would review the plan to get more specific information but noted the process is in its early stages and that the idea has been proposed in the past.

Criticisms of the Indian Health Service from the tribes and federal elected officials are nothing new.

In late May, representatives of seven Montana and Wyoming reservations delivered a litany of health care woes and described an agency compromised by bloated bureaucracy during a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee field hearing. They said IHS has been unable to fulfill its core duty — to provide health care for more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country as part of its trust responsibility to tribes that gave up their land when the United States was being formed.

At a public meeting last week, Yellow Bird Steele decried incorrect prescriptions and diagnoses at Indian Health Service facilities.

Yellow Bird Steele has also discussed the health care plan with the leaders of at least two other tribes.

Rosebud Sioux President Cyril Scott said he supports reform efforts to improve "below substandard" health care, but said the changes would have to go through his tribal council. Cheyenne River Sioux Chairman Harold Frazier couldn't be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the Indian Health Service declined to comment. Ruth Krystopolski, executive vice president of care innovation for Sanford Health, said through a spokesman that the company welcomes continued conversations on how it can meet tribal needs.

U.S. Sen John Thune said he routinely hears concerns about the effectiveness of the Indian Health Service and is interested in learning about new methods of delivering better care.

"There's an awful lot of room for improvement," he said.

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