IHS Director Nominee, Robert Weaver
What qualifications are needed to manage (and possibly reform?) the Indian health Service?
This is Trahant Reports.
The Indian Health Service is Indian Country’s largest employer with more than 15,000 people on the payroll and many, many more people who work in health care for tribes, non-profits and other related agencies. The IHS budget is $6.1 billion. Yet it’s also the least funded national health care delivery system.
The Wall Street Journal published a story last week about the controversial nomination of Robert Weaver, the Trump Administration’s pick to head the Indian Health Service. The Journal raised questions about Weaver’s role at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo.
Weaver is a member of the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma.
These are the facts. Weaver will be the least educated director of the Indian Health Service ever. If confirmed, Weaver will the tenth permanent director. All but one prior to Weaver have been physicians, most with multiple degrees in public health, science, and health administration. Weaver is not a college graduate. His background is insurance. In a September 2016 profile in Native Oklahoma magazine he said his business saved the Quapaw Tribe more than $5 million a year.
The problem here is one of scale. He was owns a business where he can hire and fire at will. But at the Indian Health Service most of the key personnel decisions are made by folks in the chain of command. Sometimes even as a favor to a United States Senator. And firing? Just one such action could take up more time than the three years left in this administration.
And that’s the easy stuff. The agency’s operations are complicated by Congress, law, regulation, tribal relations, the Veterans Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance.
To his credit, Weaver has been outspoken about the underfunding of the Indian health system. (My question: Will he say so again in his confirmation testimony?)
Perhaps the Indian Health Service should be led by someone with an insurance background. It would surely help if the agency could come up with a better funding model, including a mix of insurance funds. But it’s a complex organization and he would be managing jobs that he himself could not be qualified to run, such as a hospital administrator.
Just what are the qualifications necessary to run the Indian health system? I have a bias. I met some of the great physicians who ran the agency. I remember Emery Johnson’s passion and thoughtfulness about what IHS could be. So the standard for me, at least, is high.
Then the Trump administration likes the idea of shaking up government. And, appointing someone to run the IHS with a very different background, does just that.
We would do well to remember a phrase that medical doctors learn early in their training, First, do no harm.
I am Mark Trahant.