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Roselyn Tso, a citizen of Navajo Nation, was confirmed as the director of the Indian Health Service (IHS) on Wednesday by a vote in the Senate.
Her confirmation as the most senior federal official for Native health ends a nearly two-year period during which IHS was without a permanent director.
Elizabeth Fowler (Comanche) had been serving as the acting director of IHS since Jan. 2021, when the previous director, Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee (Zuni).
The IHS, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), provides federal health care to approximately 2.6 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. In 37 states, there are over 605 IHS hospitals, clinics, and health stations located on or near tribal communities. The IHS director oversees the administration of health-care programs and services within the agency, including managing the total budget of approximately $7.4 billion and the employment of more than 15,000 health professionals.
"We are thrilled to have a confirmed leader for the Indian Health Service, and we graciously thank Liz Fowler for her tireless service during a pandemic that has been devastating our people,” Francys Crevier (Algonquin), CEO of The National Council of Urban Indian Health said in a statement. “We look forward to working with Roselyn Tso to carry out the mission of IHS in fulfilling the trust responsibility to provide health care equity for all American Indians and Alaska Natives.
“We continue to work with Congress and this Administration to elevate this position within HHS where it belongs to lift Native voices and improve health outcomes.”
In her new position, Tso will be charged with developing IHS policy and fulfilling the organization’s mission to improve health outcomes in Indian Country. Her work with IHS dates back to 1984, and most recently she served as Director of the Navajo Area and Director of the Office of Direct Services and Contracting Tribes until her confirmation.
During her Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing to consider her nomination, Tso highlighted how a lack of a director at IHS has exacerbated already disproportionate impacts of Covid-19 to Native communities. She said that she intends to utilize IHS resources to not only address disparities caused by COVID-19, but to also “improve the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health and well-being of all American Indians and Alaskan Natives served by the Agency.”
“Ms. Tso has demonstrated that she has the background and experience needed to succeed as the Director of the Indian Health Service,” U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), vice chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement. “I congratulate Ms. Tso on her unanimous confirmation in the Senate. I am confident she will work to ensure IHS 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.”
About the Author: "Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication's lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York."