Much of South Dakota’s history is rooted in Indian Country, but sadly, many of the systems designed to help tribal members are failing. From healthcare to education to housing, those who live on reservations are struggling.

In recent years, much of the attention has focused on the failing Indian Health Service (IHS). Federal watchdog reports have repeatedly documented shocking cases of mismanagement and poorly delivered care. Babies were born on bathroom floors with no doctor present. Facilities were forced to wash surgical equipment by hand, due to broken sterilization machines. Medical personnel were coming to work with certifications that had lapsed. It is inhumane to provide this kind of “care.”

I recognize recruiting quality medical and administrative staff is an issue at many IHS facilities, which are often located in extremely remote areas, but I’m confident these challenges can be overcome. I have introduced legislation, for instance, to expand the IHS' existing student loan repayment program in order to attract more and better personnel. It would also cut the red tape that impedes professionals from volunteering at IHS hospitals and clinics and allow administrators to more easily hire good employees and fire bad employees. Moreover, the legislation increases transparency by ensuring reports and plans are completed in a timely manner, enhancing congressional oversight, and expanding whistleblower protections.

The bill is one of the most comprehensive IHS reform packages to move through Congress in recent years. It was approved by a key House committee in mid-June, and I’m hopeful we can see it advance through the legislative process in the months to come. 

Health care, however, is just one of the challenges faced by tribes in South Dakota. Housing continues to be an issue for many. Earlier this year, Sen. Thune, Sen. Rounds, and I put pressure on the Department of Agriculture to expand home ownership opportunities in these areas. This May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue responded by announcing a new pilot program on tribal lands to assist low-income families in their journey toward home ownership. I am hopeful South Dakota families will be able to take advantage of the program soon.

While housing and healthcare provide security, education offers opportunity. Recruiting and retaining good teachers, however, has proven difficult. As such, I’ve introduced legislation in the House to help ease certain financial burdens on tribal schools. I’m optimistic the changes, if enacted, will help communities retain teachers with enhanced employee benefits while also preserving more resources for the classroom.

The Native American people enrich South Dakota’s culture and play an important role in the American story, but many are struggling. Whether it’s health care, education, or housing, I’m committed to fulfilling America’s treaty obligations and expanding opportunities within tribal communities.

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