Lawmakers proposed cuts for two tribal health positions within the Department of Public Health and Human Services, saying the proposal would lead to a discussion on the importance of the positions in appropriations.
Legislators in the Section B subcommittee in their Feb. 19 meeting proposed to cut the tribal relations manager and director of American Indian health positions within the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS).
The tribal relations manager acts as a liaison between the state and tribes in navigating DPHHS logistics.
The director of American Indian health was created in 2015 after a 2013 state health assessment revealed that white men live 19 years longer than Native American men and white women live 20 years longer than Native American women in Montana. After meeting with tribal leaders about the disparate health outcomes in their communities, Gov. Steve Bullock created the position by executive order.
Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, said he supported the cuts because he wanted to further discuss the importance of the two positions.
“There are a number of tribal liaisons in the Governor’s Office and DPHHS and I think the discussion we’ve had, we’d like to get a handle on them … a consolidation of those positions and what activities they represent,” he said. “I’m going to support this so it opens up a discussion on where we stand.”
Sen. Mary McNally, D-Billings, said she had “real concerns” about losing the two tribal health positions.
“I might be able to live with (cutting) one (position), but I don’t think I can live with two,” she said.
Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, also opposed the cuts, saying she could not give “enough value or appreciation for the work they’ve done to further many positive efforts in Montana.”
The motion to cut the positions passed 4-3, with McNally, Caferro and Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, voting no.
Gov. Greg Gianforte said he is opposed to the cuts.
“Gianforte believes the proposed cut is the wrong course of action, and he’ll work to ensure the proposed cut is restored as the budget makes its way through the Legislature,” a spokesperson said.
Tribal leaders say cutting DPHHS positions will have consequences
Todd Wilson, executive director of the Helena Indian Alliance, said he has reached out to people in each of the tribal health positions for help.
The Helena Indian Alliance applied for state COVID-19 funding, which involved an online application. But Wilson said he needed clarification on some questions, so he emailed someone from the state. But Wilson wasn’t getting answers.
“I don’t know if I was being clear or if my questions were being received the right way,” he said. So, he called the tribal relations manager and explained the issue.
“She knew exactly what I was talking about. She made a call and then within an hour, I got a call from the state and my question was answered. It never would’ve happened without this tribal relations manager,” he said.
Wilson said losing the two tribal health positions will have a “huge ripple effect throughout Indian Country.”
“Being able to navigate different aspects of DPHHS and have a real person we can call, email or text is paramount,” he said. “If they cut these jobs, they could lose a lot of important trust relationships with tribes that the state has built. Tribes need to trust who they’re talking to.”
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said he didn’t understand why the two tribal health positions were “singled out” among the nearly 3,000 positions at DPHHS.
“Was this (proposed cut) based on evaluations of performance? If so, will they do those evaluations for every job in the department? I’d like to get to the bottom of how and why these cuts were proposed and what justifications they have,” he said.
Windy Boy said he is planning to propose amendments to reinstate the DPHHS positions.
“It’s getting pretty dangerous for us to continue down this path.”
“There’s always been a need for tribal advocacy. Medicaid, Medicaid expansion and other programs help our members, and without these positions, a lot of the population won’t have the advocacy they need,” he said, adding that eliminating the positions could result in litigation.