Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) reached the breaking point on Wednesday, blowing up after the acting director of the Indian Health Services dodges his direct questions over budget cuts.
The showdown came as acting IHS Director Michael Weahkee appears before the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Seven different times Sen. Tester asked Weahkee to explain whether the President’s budget would “increase” or “decrease” funding for the Indian Health Service workforce. But when Weahkee kept declining specifics, merely touching on “priorities”, Sen. Tester exploded.
“I asked you a direct question on whether this budget is up or down and you would not answer it. You refused to answer it. That is totally unacceptable. I did not come in here with my hair on fire. But I’m leaving here with it. And I’m going to tell you something. Indian Health Services is in a crisis! And if you have served in Indian Health Services for ten years and you have answered the questions at Indian Health Services like you have here today it’s no wonder that it’s in crisis. I can not believe what has transpired in this hearing today. All I want is some damn answers!”
Sen. Tester told Weahkee if the agency can’t advocate for a budget the Senate won’t be able to fix shortcomings with Indian Health Services.
Below is a transcript of the exchange provided by Tester's staff:
Tester: “Were you told to not answer any questions here by the way?”
Weahkee: “No, no.”
Tester: “Okay, because I think is it absolutely unbelievable that you can’t separate how much money Medicaid has helped you with third party billing. I mean, to the point where I think we should almost demand an audit. Because, that’s not how things work and you should have those numbers on the tip of your tongue, to be honest with you. If we are going to make policy here we have to figure out what the impacts of that policy is going to be, and by the way it is your agency that deals with Indian health; Indian health and nothing else. So we have to have it and I don’t mean to lecture to you, but have you had a chance to do an assessment of what the needs are during your three weeks at IHS?”
Weahkee: “I have been able to leverage a lot of work that’s been done prior.”
Tester: “What would you say is the number one need in IHS right now?”
Weahkee: “Absolutely, it is shoring up long standing vacancies in some key leadership positions.”
Tester: “So it’s people?”
Weahkee: “People, yes sir.”
Tester: “What does this budget do to your ability to hire staff?”
Weahkee: “We have a lot of efforts underway.”
Tester: “Is there increase in dollars for hiring staff or a decrease?”
Weahkee: “We prioritize maintaining direct care services.”
Tester: “Okay as far as total dollars go is there an increase in dollars for hiring staff or a decrease?”
Weahkee: “Our priority has been on insuring that we can continue to.”
Tester: “I guess you don’t get my question. You said it is a number one issue facing, and I agree with you by the way. So does the budget increase the number of dollars for hiring people or is it a decrease? I would assume you would know that.”
Weahkee: “Well sir we have had to make a lot of tough decisions.”
Tester: “Okay, so it’s a decrease is that what you are saying?”
Weahkee: “No sir I did not say that.”
Tester: “So is it? Look, come on man, just answer the question. I’ll back you until your guts cave if the administration comes after you, but is it an increase or a decrease?”
Weahkee: “We are really prioritizing our direct services.”
Tester: “Okay, no no no no. Really? I mean, I am on your side okay. I am a former chairman of the Indian Affairs committee, former ranking member, I have been on this committee now for eight years. Just tell me if it is an increase or a decrease, it’s that simple.”
Weahkee: “Well sir, looking at our line items our priority has been to insure that we can continue to provide direct healthcare services and those funds have been prioritized and maintained at the levels that we can insure that we don’t have to decrease the level of service.”
Tester: “That’s your answer?”
Weahkee: “That’s my answer, yes sir.”
Tester: “Wow. I am not even going to go into facilities, I’m not going to go into what is going on with mental health, I’m not going to go into what is the problem with drugs. I will tell you that with the previous IHS staff I remember giving a speech similar to what the chairman did and that is that if you guys don’t advocate for a budget how the hell are we supposed to fix it. I have never had, in ten years on this committee, I have never had somebody come up here and when I ask them a direct question they don’t answer it. I asked you a direct question on whether this budget was up or down and you would not answer it, you refused to answer it. That is totally unacceptable. I did not come in here with my hair on fire, but I am leaving here with it. I am going to tell you something, Indian health services is in a crisis and if you have served in Indian Health services for ten years and you have answered the questions in Indian health service like you have here today, there is no wonder it is in a crisis. I cannot believe what has transpired in this hearing today. All I want are some damn answers, that’s it. And if we cannot get answers from Indian health where do we go to get those answers? I don’t expect you to answer that either. This is an unbelievable hearing, I just got to tell you I have not had one like this in my tenure in here. When I ask a question, I want an answer. It’s unbelievable.”