Gov’t shutdown forces Tribe to pinch pennies

By Nate Wisneski - Kalihwisaks

The federal government shutdown is now in its third week, and the Oneida Tribe is starting to feel the effects. Without a timely resolution grant funded tribal employees will be laid-off.

After $19.5 million in funding was not received from Indian Health Services the Oneida Business Committee (OBC) along with the Oneida Comprehensive Health Division took emergency action on October 3 to make procedural changes to the Oneida Community Health Center that allow the clinic to serve the community for a longer period of time.

Oneida Community Health Center Operations Director Debbie Danforth explained how contract health services have changed for the interim.

At this point, any service or surgery that is elective is not being covered. This means that all referrals for care must meet the requirement of 1A as defined by Indian Health Service.  Priority 1A means a referral must meet the following criteria: Threat to life, limb senses (which) diagnosis and treatment of injuries or conditions that, if left untreated, results in uncertain/potentially grave outcomes,” said Debbie Danforth.

Oneida citizen Kathryn Newbanks suffers from multiple ailments and utilizes contract health and the Oneida pharmacy. 

They’re playing with our health, they’re playing with our lives. This government shutdown ultimately is going to mean that I am going to be living in pain,” said Newbanks. ”The only way I can get help or services concerning my heart is to have crushing chest pain and be rushed to the hospital.”

With a shutdown resolution unclear leadership is examining if more changes to services need to be made.

At this point, we are looking at where other potential cuts could be made within the Division and are determining which services are considered essential and which are considered non-essential.  But no formal decision has been made.  Our recommendations would be submitted to the Business Committee for final review and approval,” said Debbie Danforth.

Debbie Danforth urges community members who utilize Indian Health Services as their health care provider to take a step back and evaluate if that’s their best option.

“I think the main point would be to stress the need in the future for community members to obtain insurance coverage for situations like these when there is no Contract Health Service.  With the Affordable Care Act, people will have greater access to affordable care and they should be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity to purchase insurance coverage,” added Debbie Danforth.

With the uncertainty and fluidity of the government shutdown the OBC passed a cost containment resolution on October 9.

“The cost containment resolution basically mirrors what we’ve done in the past. Limit travel, hold off hiring positions, and we’re going delay wage increase until (January). It all relates to cash going out the window,” said OBC Councilmember Melinda Danforth.

The General Tribal Council passed the $.44 wage increase during the tribe’s budget meeting last month. The plan is to put the raise into effect in January with pay dated back to October.

Melinda Danforth said the difficult decisions are being made with the tribe’s best interests in mind.

“The committee knows that the health clinic is a priority but we want to make sure we are providing essential services to the community. We have to squeeze tight for a while until this craziness by the federal government is concluded,” said Melinda Danforth.

The cut-off funding’s impact is being felt especially hard after the tribe paid out millions in per capita and higher education funding last month which depleted the tribe’s available cash.

Inside the cost containment resolution is language that will trigger a lay-off process starting November 8 for grant funded employees and the suspension of grant funded-programs. A furlough policy was also approved to implement if unpaid time off by employees is needed to relieve financial pressure on the organization.

The Oneida Community Health Center isn’t the only area feeling the pressure from the shutdown.

Oneida Transit, effective October 13, has transportation services limited to medical, employment, education, and elders while cutting their service hours to 14 hours per day. They no longer will provide social transportation until further notice and limited transportation for social events.

Food Distribution, effective October 2, no longer offers perishable foods and canned goods are being distributed while supply is in stock.

According to Chief Financial Officer Larry Barton even if a deal is struck soon relief will take some time be felt.

The (cost containment) resolution will remain in effect until cash flow has been stabilized upon a resolve to the shutdown,” said Barton. “We may experience a several month lag to receive federal dollars.”

With strict saving methods along with responsible debt management the tribe has built a contingency fund valued at $14 million. Approval to use the fund to offset not received federal grants can be approved by the OBC.

“We encourage tribal members to contact their congressional delegates from Wisconsin and tell them how they are being impacted personally. It’s a shame that the people that need it the most are being affected,” said Melinda Danforth.