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Thune makes case for IHS reform bill

U.S. Sen. John Thune speaks in front of the Rosebud IHS Hospital in 2016. (Evan Hendershot / Republic)

South Dakota's longest-tenured congressional delegate has had his eyes on Indian Health Service reform for years, but U.S. Sen. John Thune believes a recently introduced bill is the answer to the issues plaguing the agency.

While the federal government is embroiled in issues of Russian interference in the election process and health care reform, the Republican senator took time Tuesday to speak in favor of the Restoring Accountability in the Indian Health Service Act of 2017 that he helped introduce last month.

Thune has often shared stories he's heard about poor quality health care within the agency that serves tribal members throughout the nation, and he reiterated his concerns at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

"The Indian Health Service just continues to underperform, and the consequences continue to negatively impact the quality of care, with sometimes devastating consequences," Thune said. "So, what we see is taxpayer dollars get wasted, patients are put at risk."

The bill, which Thune introduced alongside U.S. Sens. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, is meant to improve oversight and and transparency within the agency. Included in the bill are measures to expand removal and discipline authorities for "problem employees," commission Government Accountability Office reports on housing and staffing needs and expand the eligibility requirements for IHS employees to participate in loan repayment programs.

The bill would also ensure investigations of patient deaths in which the IHS is "alleged to be involved by act or omission" and address personnel gaps by creating more flexible competitive pay scales within the agency.

Thune has introduced similar legislation in the past, and fellow South Dakotans U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem have also made attempts to rectify the issues within the IHS. Those efforts were heightened after the Rosebud IHS Hospital was forced to divert patients away from its emergency room due to poor conditions.

When the Restoring Accountability in the Indian Health Service Act of 2017 was introduced in the Senate, Noem joined other legislators to bring a companion IHS reform bill before the U.S. House of Representatives.

As the reform efforts mount, Thune sees the new bill as a step to an improved IHS.

"Our tribes just deserve better than the status quo, and this hearing, I think, is an important first step in getting these reforms passed through Congress and hopefully to the president's desk for his signature," Thune said.