- Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker
As the largest tribal government in the United States, it’s important for the Cherokee Nation to be a leader for other tribes. That means advocating for our people and meeting with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., to improve conditions for all of Indian Country. From health care to housing to federal trust obligations, there are countless issues facing the Cherokee Nation that hinge on decisions made by Congress.
That’s why I’ll be testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Interior Appropriations Subcommittee (Congressional testimony) in the coming days. It is an opportunity for tribal leaders to outline priorities of tribal governments and educate our policymakers on the issues most important to our sovereign governments and our people.
Last year, I addressed the same legislative committee and asked for the Indian Health Service joint venture program to be reopened. Fortunately, that argument was heard and the IHS program was reopened after years of being dormant. I am so proud of our work, because it led to the Cherokee Nation being approved for one of the first new IHS Joint Venture projects.
Under the joint venture, the federal government will now provide $20 to $30 million annually for at least 20 years to the Cherokee Nation’s planned medical campus in Tahlequah.
That’s an investment that will eventually exceed $1 billion, and money we would have never received if not for our work with congressional leadership. Because of our work, other tribes in America also benefit by receiving IHS Joint Venture awards. But when it comes to providing quality health care to our tribal citizens, I’ll never be satisfied, so I will address the issue again this year before Congress.
Our efforts in Washington, D.C., have also paid off in other areas like self-governance. Cherokee Nation has long been a leader in self-governance and was among the first tribes to enter into self-governance compacts. Being a self-governing tribe allows us to form a contract with the federal government to be reimbursed for providing federally obligated services. These reimbursed fees are called contract support costs. Even though the federal government is legally required to reimburse these fees, they have treated these payments as optional. As such, when federal budgets are tight, federal agencies routinely skip these payments to the Cherokee Nation.
When federal agencies do not pay contract support costs, our tribal governments must find a way to make up the difference. That’s not right and not fair to our citizens, because it hampers our other critical programs like education, law enforcement, career services and housing. For every $1 million the Cherokee Nation pays to cover contract support costs, it costs us nearly 6,000 patient visits. This issue plagues Indian Country and impacts tribes nationwide. We filed our first claim for unpaid contract support costs in 1994, so for more than 20 years we argued that contract support costs are a legal obligation of the United States.
We prevailed in that argument this past year and recovered nearly $30 million in unpaid fees from the federal government. But there needs to be a permanent fix, so I will ask Congress to reclassify contract support costs as mandatory, rather than discretionary.
Also at risk is the way our health dollars are appropriated. The proposed federal budget has more money for Indian health care, and that is good. However, we need to ensure our health dollars are never again threatened by a federal sequester, which cost the Cherokee Nation $8 million in health programs alone. Making federal funding mandatory protects these critical programs from political posturing.
I encourage all of you to pay attention to the decisions of our federal lawmakers and become engaged in the process. Please know when I visit Capitol Hill, I’ll be proudly representing all of you, and I look forward to telling Congress why tribal health care, housing and other services are so important.
Bill John Baker is principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, based in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.