Navajo Nation citizen will head Indian Health Service

Roselyn Tso was confirmed by the Senate on Wednesday. The health service has been without a permanent leader since Joe Biden’s inauguration.

By: - September 26, 2022 4:21 am

Roselyn Tso (Courtesy of IHS)

Navajo Nation citizen Roselyn Tso was confirmed by the Senate Wednesday to lead the Indian Health Service, the first permanent director the agency has had in nearly two years.

Tso’s term will last four years. The director of Indian Health Service is the most senior position that helps to develop healthcare policy for 2.6 million Indigenous people across the nation.

It had taken seven months for Tso to be confirmed as director of the agency. President Joe Biden nominated Tso in March. Her nomination hearing was in late May.

“I will work to maximize the Agency’s resources to improve the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health and well-being of all American Indians and Alaskan Natives served by the Agency,” Tso said at her nomination hearing earlier this year. “This is particularly important as we are more than two years into a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Indian Country.”

Tso has worked for IHS for nearly four decades. She started her career in 1984 as the administrative officer for the Yakama Service Unit, eventually working her way up to acting director of the Office of Direct Services and Contracting Tribes in Portland from 2010 to 2018. The next year, in 2019, she became the director for the Navajo Area of Indian Health Service. She aided the Navajo Nation in weathering the Covid-19 pandemic that at one point had the highest number of cases, per capita, in the country.

Tso is from LeChee, Arizona. She is Deeshchii’nii, Start of the Red Streak People, born for Hashk’ąą hadzohi, Yucca Fruit-Strung-Out-In-A-Line clan. Her maternal grandfather is from Zia Pueblo and her paternal grandfather is Tł ‘ízí lání, Many Goats clan. She graduated from Marylhurst University in Oregon with an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies and from University of Phoenix in Portland with a master’s in organizational management.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, chairman of the Senate committee on Indian Affairs, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, vice chairman of the committee, championed Tso’s nomination.

“Dedicated, long-serving leadership at the Indian Health Service is vital to fulfilling its mission,” Schatz said in a press release. “I’m confident that Ms. Tso will lead the Service with distinction, having the qualifications, willingness to serve Indian Country, and commitment to educating other Department of Health and Human Services agencies on the federal government’s special political and trust relationship with the Native Hawaiians, who also receive healthcare services through HHS.”

Vice Chairwoman Murkowski echoed the sentiment: “Ms. Tso has demonstrated that she has the background and experience needed to succeed as the Director of the Indian Health Service. I congratulate Ms. Tso on her unanimous confirmation in the Senate. I am confident she will work to ensure Indian Health Service fulfills its mission to raise the health status of American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country by providing top notch quality health care. Native people deserve nothing less.”

The National Indian Health Board congratulated Tso on her nomination. In a press release the board stated that Indian Health Services needs to first secure advanced appropriations but ultimately needs to move toward full, mandatory funding.

“Full mandatory funding for IHS fulfills the commitment made to our people generations ago and breaks down the systemic healthcare funding inequities the federal government tolerates for Tribes but not for veterans or seniors,” the board said.

Indian Health Services exists to provide healthcare for sovereign Native nations, this has been upheld “by numerous treaties, laws, Supreme Court decisions, and Executive Orders,” according to the agency’s website.

The National Indian Health Board would also like to see the Special Diabetes Program for Indians have more reliable and consistent funding.

“(Fiscal year) 2023 also marks the final year of authorization of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, which has proven to be one of the most effective public health programs in the country and therefore deserving of permanent reauthorization at $400 million annually to meet the actual need,” the board said. “However, its very existence has proven to be remarkably unreliable and short-term, and its existing funding process ignores inherent Tribal sovereignty recognized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. Successful programs like the SPDI deserve better”.

Indian Health Service has been chronically underfunded making it unable to provide equitable health care for over 560 Indigenous nations in the country. In 2021, Congress appropriated $6.6 billion for the health agency. To be fully funded the agency would need $36.7 billion.

“The task ahead is long and difficult, and NIHB commends Roselyn Tso for other commitments and looks forward to working together to achieve health equity within, and for, IHS,” the board said.

This story was originally published by ICT. It is republished here with permission.

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Pauly Denetclaw, ICT
Pauly Denetclaw, ICT

Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is Haltsooí (Meadow People) born for Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House People). An award-winning reporter based in Gallup, New Mexico, she has worked for the Navajo Times and Texas Observer covering Indigenous communities, and her radio pieces have aired on KYAT, National Native News, NPR’s Latino USA and Texas Public Radio. She is a board member of the Native American Journalist Association.