Senator sees ‘gross incompetence’ in IHS office

By Blake Nicholson
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) August 2010

It is inexcusable that two Indian Health Service mental health positions remain vacant on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, while teenage suicides remain a serious problem, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said.

The chairman of the Senate’s Indian Affairs Committee said one of the positions – director of mental health services – has been vacant a full year. Meanwhile, Dorgan said, three teenagers have killed themselves in the past month on the Standing Rock reservation straddling the North Dakota-South Dakota border.

“I see this as gross incompetence,” Dorgan said. “Kids are dying while the bureaucracy ignores the crisis.”

The IHS area office in Aberdeen, S.D., referred a request for comment to a national IHS spokesman. Thomas Sweeney declined to immediately comment, saying the office had just learned of Dorgan’s statements and planned to respond in a letter to the senator.

The Senate committee launched an investigation into the Aberdeen IHS office in June. The office oversees 48 facilities in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. Dorgan said that probe uncovered the vacant positions, which also includes a staff psychologist post that became vacant in June.

“This is simply inexcusable and unacceptable,” Dorgan wrote in a letter to IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux. He asked her to provide an “explanation for how this occurred, who is responsible, how these individuals will be held accountable, and how the agency plans to either quickly fill these positions or bring in temporary providers.”

The committee previously set a July 28 deadline for the IHS to provide information for the larger investigation. Dorgan told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the agency has not fully complied. He said missing information includes such things as data on hundreds of complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Dorgan said if the committee does not get the information within a couple of weeks it intends to issue subpoenas.

“I think these problems ... go beyond this region, but this region is one that is particularly acute in terms of problems,” he said. “They transfer problem employees, there are substantial EEOC complaints ... if we can get to the bottom of it in this region and apply it elsewhere, I’m hoping we can save lives.”