Tribes taking on big task with Sioux San Hospital management

Published: Apr. 25, 2018 at 8:07 PM CDT
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The three West River tribes have announced they plan to take over management of Sioux San Hospital that serves the tribes' Pennington County members.

The move comes after a decline in the quality of health care provided by the Indian Health Service at Sioux San and around the state. The takeover presents a major challenge -- and opportunity -- for the tribes.

The shortcomings of IHS health service in South Dakota are old news in the Indian community. Robert Cook recounts his wife's travails that started with a rash on her ankle.

"They took her over to the Sioux San they checked it out and said it looks fine," he said. "And that it should be going away. But that rash wasn't really a rash. It was clotting."

After being referred to a specialist the bad news continued.

"She ended up losing her leg because she had blood clots," he said.

And there was another blow to come.

"And so our hospital bills have been exorbitant over the years and Indian Health Service refuses to pay any of the bills," Cook said.

And so when IHS announced last year it planned to close the inpatient services at Sioux San the tribes had had enough.

"Over the decades we have tried and nothing has worked so far," said William Bear Shield the president of the Unified Tribes Health Board that oversees the Sioux San operation for the Oglala, Rosebud and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes. "And so we had to do something. This is a culmination of those efforts for the three tribes to come together to start a model of running a facility at the tribal level."

Federal law allows tribes to take over certain federal contracts and IHS says it will assist the tribes in this takeover effort. But there will be a steep learning curve.

"I feel that throughout Indian Country there are some very capable individuals, maybe not locally right now, but throughout the nation that we feel we can recruit," said Bear Shield.

The tribes also plan on taking over the IHS contract to build a new outpatient facility on the Sioux San Campus -- and move it to a new location on the northeast side of Rapid City closer to the interstate and the Indian population base.

"We also felt that there are other services down the road that the tribes can use the (space on the) current campus for," said Bear Shield.

The takeover task is daunting but leaders say they are confident.

"We feel that coming together on this collective effort that we can provide better health care for all citizens of Rapid City," said Bear Shield.

And that they have to respond to the needs of their members.

"We deserve better health treatment just like everybody else is entitled to," said Oglala member Sandra Woodard.