November 14, 2013

Sequestration Cuts Deeply into Indian Country

WASHINGTON D.C. – Today Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) held a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs oversight hearing on Contract Support Costs and Sequestration: Fiscal Crisis in Indian Country.
The Committee heard testimony from federal agencies; the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Indian Health Service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  The Committee also heard from Tribal leaders from Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (MN), Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians (OR), Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (MS), Chickasaw Nation (OK), Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (MI), and the National Congress of American Indians.
During the hearing Chairwoman Cantwell remarked that, “the trust relationship that exists between the United States and Tribes is a relationship built through the United States Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, and Supreme Court decisions.  The percentage of the entire United States’ budget that is going to Indian Country today is only 0.07%. That is a third less than the percentage was in 1995.  So it’s clear that our country’s financial troubles are not stemming from our obligations to Indian Country, and frankly, we’re not doing a good job in fulfilling those obligations.” 
The Committee heard testimony on the impacts of sequestration and contract support costs shortfall from the Honorable Kevin Washburn, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior.  “Indian people are often among the poorest communities in the United States, reductions to the budget caused by sequestration has undermined the health and safety of some of the most vulnerable segments of society with particular effects on children, the elderly, and families,” Washburn said. 
In speaking about contract support costs, Washburn said, “the Administration is engaged in the important work of preparing the FY 2015 Budget Request.  It is our intention to continue to work to find a responsible solution to the contact support cost issue.  Our discussions with Tribes will continue, and the views we hear from Tribes will inform our path forward.”
The Honorable Yvette  Roubideaux, Acting Director of the Indian Health Service said that,  “the impact of sequestration in FY 2013 was significant for Indian Health Service (IHS); overall, the $220 million reduction in IHS’ budget authority for FY 2013 was estimated to result in a reduction of 3,000 inpatient admissions and 804,000 outpatient visits for American Indians and Alaska Natives.  In FY 2013, IHS made significant reductions in administrative costs, travel, and delayed hires, purchasing and planned renovations to focus on preserving the IHS mission.”
The National Congress of American Indians was represented by President Brian Cladoosby, who spoke on the need for an immediate solution. “Absent specific exemptions for Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services, and other Tribal programs, Congress must reach a deal to turn off sequestration entirely because it breaks trust and treaty obligations. Tribes urge Congress to replace sequestration and avoid cutting even more deeply from key domestic investments, which include the solemn duty to fund the trust responsibility.”  Cladoosby added, “If Congress cancels sequestration cuts to defense spending, the same dollar-for-dollar protection must be provided to non-defense discretionary programs. Reductions in funding to meet trust obligations to tribal nations – public safety, education, health care, social services, and tribal governmental services – are reductions to “high powered” spending for local economies, which will impede economic recovery in addition to causing increased poverty and hardship for Indian Country.”
The Committee also heard from  Lt. Governor Jefferson Keel of the Chickasaw Nation “The contract support cost issue truly is a ‘crisis’ for the Chickasaw Nation, both when it comes to the status of our claims that have been pending with Indian Health Service for over 8 eight years, and when it comes to the continuing annual shortfalls we suffer and which we must therefore subsidize year in and year out.”
At the hearing, Chairwoman Karen Diver, Chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa commented on the impact of sequestration.  “Across-the-board sequestration cuts and rescissions to federal programs for Indian Tribes will not balance the federal debt. What it will do is set back decades of hard work by Indian tribes and the United States to lift Native people out of poverty and put them on a path to empowerment and self-sufficiency.”
Bud Lane, Tribal Vice Chairman for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians said, “it is important to recognize that sequestration has exacerbated the longstanding issue of insufficient funding for contract support costs.   Often the only recourse to address this shortfall is to reduce services to tribal members.  For Siletz, we have seen tribal child welfare positions go unfilled, while remaining staff carry caseloads two times higher than their state counterparts.” 
Aaron Payment, Chairman Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians commented that, “the President’s budget only asks for $477 million for Indian Health Service contract support cost payments even though IHS says the actual costs are over $75 million more. The same is true of the Bureau of Indian Affairs: the $230 million the President’s budget requests is roughly $10 million short of what is required to pay all tribal contractors in full for the work we do for the government under these contracts.”
“Like the failure to pay full contract support costs, sequestration is another example of broken promises made to Indian Country,” remarked Phyliss Anderson, Tribal Chief of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. “As countless witnesses have stated before this Committee, the federal government has a trust responsibility to federally-recognized Tribe, including budget obligations, that was forged through the Constitution, various treaties and agreements with Indian nations who relinquished millions of acres of land to the United States.”