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Becerra Will Take Aim at the Crumbling Rural Healthcare System Plagued by Hospital-Closings Serving Indian Country: The Response that Led to the COVID-19  Epic ‘Fail’

WASHINGTON — Facing pushback from Republican senators, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, President Biden’s nominee to become the next Health and Human Services secretary, only garnered a 14-14 tie coming out of Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

This means Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will have to bring the nomination to the full Senate for a four -hour debate prior to taking a vote to confirmation. If all Democrats and Republicans vote down party lines, Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat, would be needed to cast the deciding vote to confirm Becerra.

On Friday, three American Indian organizations sent a joint letter to Senate leaders urging senators to support the nomination of Becerra. The letter stressed he will reverse the hospital crisis plaguing rural states and repair and reform the broken federal healthcare system that serves all American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In the strongly worded letter, the leaders of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Global Indigenous Council, and the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association gave particular attention to how the coronavirus pandemic demonstrated with deadly accuracy the multitude of problems in the health system across Indian Country.

“For the Indigenous community, the swift confirmation of AG Becerra is literally a matter of life and death,” the groups wrote in the letters to senators. “In this moment of severe challenge and crisis in our country, we appeal for bipartisanship to save lives.”

 The letter detailed the problems with the federal healthcare system specific to the coronavirus pandemic, including:

  • Many Indian reservations served by IHS had no ICU beds at the outset of the pandemic
  • Many tribal administrations had to create hastily organized quasi-ICU facilities in empty buildings or Boys and Girls Clubs, some even erecting tent cities for quarantine areas.
  • Tribes were left to scramble for PPE and some only received critical supplies by the grace of private donors while the federal response was for month’s missing-in-action

Tom Rodgers (Blackfeet), president of the Global Indigenous Council, noted “the shameful and unnecessary crisis within the Indian Health Service (IHS) labyrinth is overshadowed by a crumbing rural healthcare system that was ignored as hospitals shuttered and doctors moved to cities and the suburbs, but the fact is IHS is so mired in malpractice and incompetence that it leaves even the urban Indigenous population at risk.”

“It’s shocking, frankly, that in the last four years an administration so tied to rural voters was detached from the healthcare needs of those people, and apparently got away with it,” Rodgers said. “With the utmost confidence, I can say firsthand that Atty. Gen. Becerra is going to jump on the overarching healthcare crisis, and he recognizes how repairing the system that serves Native Americans and Alaska Natives fits into that undertaking.”

The Indigenous groups backing Becerra led a successful effort backing the nomination of Deb Haaland as secretary of the Interior. Additional Indigenous groups are expected to join in supporting California Atty. Gen. Becerra for secretary of HHS.

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