May 9, 2018
WASHINGTON — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker delivered testimony Wednesday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies. Baker urged subcommittee members to support the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for staffing and operation costs for newly constructed health care facilities. He also urged the subcommittee members to continue the pursuit of a Bureau of Indian Education joint venture construction program.
Baker’s full testimony is as follows:
Chairman Calvert, Ranking Member McCollum and members of the subcommittee:
I am Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Thank you for the opportunity to share our appropriations priorities for fiscal year 2019.
The Cherokee Nation is truly one of the great success stories in Indian Country. Fifty years ago, our annual budget was $1.1 million. Today, we have an economic impact of over $2 billion. We are the undisputed economic engine of our region. Our government is increasing access to quality health care, education, jobs and housing. Our businesses are employing men and women across the United States, including in each of your states.
However, there is still much work to be done. The Cherokee Nation is not in business simply to be in business. We are in business to serve our 360,000 citizens and to give them and every resident in northeast Oklahoma the opportunity to create a better life. I believe the first step to reach this goal begins with excellent health care and education.
We are currently building a new health center under the IHS Joint Venture Construction Program. When it opens in 2019, this new 469,000-square-foot facility will be the crown jewel of the largest tribally operated health system in America. The center will provide primary care with integrated behavioral health, preventive care and a wide array of medical specialties. We are finalizing negotiations with Oklahoma State University to bring a new medical school to the complex. It will be the first medical school located in Indian Country. This project is critical to the future of health care in the Cherokee Nation and our region, and I can’t say enough about its importance.
IHS shares this view. The president’s fiscal year 2019 budget request includes $159 million for staffing and operations costs for newly constructed health care facilities. This funding will support staffing and operations at seven new IHS facilities, including ours. We applaud the administration for prioritizing funding for our facility. Today, we urge the subcommittee to support and fully fund the administration’s request in your fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill.
Moving to education — I am pleased the subcommittee directed the BIA to “investigate establishing joint venture construction programs for schools that are modeled after the Indian Health Service joint venture program” in last year’s spending measure. As I have testified previously, Cherokee Nation strongly supports the creation of a joint venture program for schools. We operate a BIE school that is in dire need of repairs, and we cannot continue to wait for the agency to work its way through a long list of schools with similar needs. I encourage you to continue to push the BIA toward innovative solutions to address the significant construction backlog.
Finally, I want to thank Chairman Calvert, Representative Cole and Ranking Member McCollum for their efforts to address CMS’s incorrect decision to classify tribal governments as a racial group. We strongly oppose this ill-conceived action. It undermines tribal sovereignty and ignores Supreme Court decisions and longstanding policies that put federal-tribal relations on a government-to-government basis. Our health budget relies on Medicaid reimbursement to care for at-risk users. In 2017, Medicaid patient visits totaled more than 94,000 at our facilities. Without Medicaid reimbursement, we would lose as much as $46 million this year alone. I urge the Appropriations Committee to take prompt action and exercise oversight through the fiscal year 2019 appropriations process. Such oversight should emphasize the government-to-government relationship between the federal government and tribes and direct CMS to revisit this incorrect decision.
Thank you again for this opportunity, and I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.