Investigators to visit IHS clinicFORT THOMPSON — The director of the Aberdeen Area Office of the Indian Health Service told Crow Creek tribal leaders that investigators will arrive on Monday to look into complaints lodged by tribal members about the management of the IHS Health Center in Fort Thompson.
By: Melanie Brandert, The Daily Republic, Worthington Daily Globe
FORT THOMPSON — The director of the Aberdeen Area Office of the Indian Health Service told Crow Creek tribal leaders that investigators will arrive on Monday to look into complaints lodged by tribal members about the management of the IHS Health Center in Fort Thompson.
Peter Lengkeek, tribal council treasurer, said that some tribal council members conducted a teleconference Thursday with Charlene Red Thunder, director of the IHS area office. The office supervises eight tribal hospitals and five health centers in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.
Investigators will evaluate the clinic, report to their supervisors, send a report to tribal leaders based on their findings and dictate a plan of action, Lengkeek said.
“She assured us something will be done,” he said of Red Thunder.
The evaluation comes after Crow Creek tribal leaders and members met with local and regional IHS officials Tuesday to discuss their concerns with the operations and management of the clinic.
Some of the local concerns, according to Lengkeek, stem from the case of Lisa Owen, a 47-year-old Fort Thompson woman who reportedly went to IHS last week and complained of chest pains. She could not be transported to the clinic because no drivers or vehicles were available, Lengkeek said, so her husband drove her there.
Lengkeek said she did not receive an electrocardiogram test or have her blood drawn.
“They gave her some medicine for arthritis,” Lengkeek said of Owen. “An hour later, she fell over dead from a massive heart attack.”
Owen died Sept. 1 at Chamberlain, according to an obituary sent to The Daily Republic by a Chamberlain funeral home. Her funeral was Tuesday.
Owen’s husband, Rio, declined to speak with The Daily Republic about his wife’s experience, saying he was still grieving her loss.
The Daily Republic contacted Madonna Long, chief executive officer of the IHS Health Center in Fort Thompson, but she deferred comment to the Aberdeen Area Office of IHS.
Red Thunder issued a statement Friday that the area office in Aberdeen is working closely with the tribe and community and resolving their issues and concerns with management of the clinic in Fort Thompson.
“We look forward to supporting the tribe as we work to strengthen the health-care system,” she said.
This summer, the IHS area office fell under the scrutiny of U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, when he launched an investigation into what the office was doing to solve the epidemic of teen suicides on the Standing Rock Reservation. Dorgan said recently that two key positions remained vacant — one being director of mental health services, which has been open since August 2009. IHS did not advertise for the position until June.
A December 2009 letter from a staff psychologist at Standing Rock that urged the area office to take emergency action to provide adequate mental health staffing allegedly never received a response from the office in Aberdeen, according to Dorgan.
“I see this as gross incompetence,” he said. “Kids are dying while the bureaucracy ignores the crisis.”
U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said his office has been in touch with Dorgan’s staff about the investigation and is awaiting the final report. He said he supports changes that IHS Director Yvette Roubideaux has sought to implement.
“Her knowledge of Great Plains issues is invaluable to our tribes in South Dakota as she has firsthand knowledge of the challenges that they face,” he said. “The IHS has been chronically underfunded, and we must do all we can to fulfill our trust and treaty obligations.”
Roubideaux, a Rosebud Sioux tribal member, wrote on her director’s blog Aug. 27 that she met with tribal leaders from the Aberdeen area office to update them on federal efforts to improve the agency and that IHS was cooperating with Dorgan’s investigation.
According to the area office’s website, the health center in Fort Thompson has two physicians on staff. Emergency patients are seen after hours and on weekends at Sanford Medical Center Chamberlain. Inpatient care is contracted to area hospitals, with the closest being the one in Chamberlain.
Lengkeek noted investigators assessed the clinic in previous years, but nothing was accomplished. He said tribal leaders would feel more comfortable with an outside entity conducting the evaluation.
“But the only thing different about this time is it’s a council who cares and we are going to hold them accountable,” Lengkeek said. “We are demanding answers and action. We are not going to let up until we get answers.”
Lengkeek said IHS denies paying medical bills that it receives and the financial responsibility falls back onto tribal members, thus giving them bad credit when they can’t pay the balance and are contacted by collection agencies.
“What they are telling our people is that they are only going to pay for it if it is life and limb,” he said of IHS. “From our understanding, IHS has been turning $1 million to $2 million a year back to the government. When they do that, they get a bonus.
“The people here are tired of the way they get treated.”
Lengkeek’s son, Jordan Traversie, 19, lost his right leg four inches above the knee in a motor vehicle accident Dec. 5. He was thrown from the vehicle in which he was riding and it landed on him, according to Lengkeek.
IHS denied his son service and referred the case to Medicaid, he said. His son was not initially covered by Medicaid.
“For a long time, we kept getting bills and bills and then a bill collector started calling and calling,” he said. “Finally, we were able to get Medicaid to pay for it.”
Lengkeek claims that youth and adults on the reservation are hooked on pain medication and IHS is providing them with what they want.
“There is no regulation of it,” he said.
Lengkeek alleges that when his brother, a Vietnam veteran, visited the clinic for a bad back and a physician prescribed him Oxycontin, his brother told the doctor he didn’t want to take such a strong medication.
“The doctor told him, ‘Well, take them out on the street and sell them. Everybody else does,’ ” Lengkeek said.
Often, tribal members will wait until evening hours to seek health care in Chamberlain, where they can be seen and know they can receive good care, Lengkeek said. He and his family try to avoid going to the Fort Thompson clinic.
If members try to seek health care during the day off the reservation, Lengkeek said, they are told to go to IHS.
“Everybody in the white world thinks we have it made because we have free medical care,” Lengkeek said. “I invite you to come down here and bring your problems here and get this free medical care and tell me what you think.”