Indian Health Service may have a director before pandemic surges again
Roselyn Tso proceeds to full U.S. Senate vote.
WASHINGTON — Navajo health advocate Roselyn Tso is finally moving on to a vote before the full U.S. Senate to determine whether she will become the next Indian Health Service (IHS) director. If confirmed, she would be in charge of overseeing a multi-billion yearly budget involving healthcare for nearly 3 million tribal citizens.
It’s been a slow-go for Tso, and tribal citizens have thus been left without a permanent director to advocate for them, as the White House and Senate leaders dragged their feet on getting this position filled.
The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, has continued to progress, with a new, more contagious variant currently on track to again sweep the nation.
The Biden administration has not had a permanent IHS director in place for the entirety of its oversight of the pandemic, which has seen numerous Native American deaths nationwide. The Trump administration also left the position vacant for much of the previous president’s tenure.
Some tribal advocates have blamed White House leaders, including former Native affairs director Libby Washburn — who left the job in April — and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services leadership for taking so long — until March of this year — to help President Joe Biden nominate Tso to the position.
Then U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, waited two more months to hold a hearing on her nomination — and since then two more months to hold a business meeting to pass her out of committee by a voice vote today.
The National Indian Health Board advocacy organization was so alarmed that the White House slow-walked the filling of this position that it sent urgent communications to White House and congressional leaders asking for action.
Tso was ultimately chosen after a lengthy vetting process of multiple internal and external candidates, and she has vowed to support tribal sovereignty if confirmed. She has worked her way up in the IHS system since the 1980s, and her tribe and others have supported her nomination.
Schatz led a committee business meeting today to move her forward.
“From her careful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Navajo service area, to her dedication and commitment to sustaining and improving Native communities’ health outcomes, it is clear that Ms. Tso is qualified to serve in this position,” Schatz said in a statement this afternoon.
“Notably, Ms. Tso committed to being responsible for educating other HHS agencies on the federal government’s special political and trust relationship with Native Hawaiians, who receive healthcare services through HHS, and to work on improving healthcare outcomes for Native Hawaiians. I urge my fellow members of the Committee to support Ms. Tso’s nomination.”
Schatz has failed to address questions on why he has apparently felt comfortable in proceeding slowly with filling the position during the ongoing pandemic, nor whether he pressed the White House to move faster.
Tso’s bio from the White House follows:
Roselyn Tso is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. Tso began her career with the Indian Health Service (IHS) in 1984. She previously served in various roles in the Portland Area IHS and IHS Headquarters. Currently, Tso serves as the Area Director for the Navajo Area IHS. The Navajo Area IHS delivers health services to a user population of over 244,000 American Indians; the Navajo Nation is one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States consisting of more than 25,000 contiguous square miles and three satellite communities, and extends into portions of the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. In her leadership position, she was responsible for the implementation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act and worked directly with tribes and direct service tribes.
Tso holds a Bachelor of Arts in interdisciplinary studies from Marylhurst University in Portland, Oregon and a master’s degree in organizational management from the University of Phoenix, Portland, Oregon.
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