The Billings Outpost

Tribal leaders detail Indian Health Service woes

By STEPHEN DOW - The Billings Outpost

Those who spoke at the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ field hearing about The Indian Health Service last week brought up many issues, but they had few answers on how to solve these problems.

Participants in the meeting at the Billings Public Library included U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, acting IHS director Yvette Robideaux and representatives of seven tribes from across Montana and Wyoming.

“We’re not having this hearing for the sake of having a hearing,” Tester said. “We’re having a hearing to find out what the problems are, how pervasive they are, and how we can fix them.”

According to Darrin Old Coyote of the Crow Tribe, Native Americans not only deserve better health care but are owed it as well.

“The tribe’s ancestors signed treaties with the federal government ceding many millions of prime acres rich in resources in exchange for goods and services,” he said. “One of those services was healthcare, not only for themselves but for generations to come. The tribe held up its end of the exchange, but the federal government has failed, and the tribe should not be in a position where it is having to continually fight for something it is owed.”

Dr. Robideaux speaks out

Dr. Robideaux oversees the Billings IHS office, which serves more than  67,000 Native Americans in Montana and Wyoming. Robideaux is in charge of the office until a replacement can be found for outgoing director Anna Whiting-Sorrel, who left the position less than 18 months after she was appointed.

During her prepared statement, Robideaux acknowledged that changes needed to be made, but she didn’t specify what those were. In fact, she more frequently directed attention to the progress that IHS was making in areas such as communicating better with local tribes and monitoring the productivity of IHS staff.

However, as she answered Tester’s questions, Robideaux opened up about the problems facing IHS.

“What keeps me up at night is the funding situation,” she said. “The population is growing and the budget, even though it is growing, isn’t big enough to meet the demand …  . We’re funded much less than other federal healthcare programs. My top priority is fighting as hard as I can to get us more resources, because in the end that will make the biggest difference.”

Indeed, funding is a problem for IHS. According to a 2013 report by the National Congress of American Indians, IHS spent only $2,741 per patient in the year 2010. This is stark contrast to the per capita spending of Medicare ($11,018), the VA ($7,154), and Medicaid ($5,841).

This lack of funding keeps IHS’s beneficiaries from accessing a wide variety of care. In a 2010 survey of 740 federally employed physicians in the IHS, less than 50 percent reported adequate access to high-quality specialists, nonemergency hospital admission, and high-quality outpatient mental health services.

During last week’s field hearing, Robideaux addressed another problem.

“For a long time, the model of IHS was to make sure that we were meeting the standards that have been set nationally for healthcare systems. Our facilities are accredited so we do meet the standards objectively, but that’s not the point. The problem is that in the eyes of the patients we are not meeting expectations and we are not meeting their needs …  . We need to have more accountability and more focus on our patients … . That’s a very different perspective that’s going to take time to achieve.”

Concerns of the tribes

One of the many concerns from speakers was that inferior medical care has led to lower life expectancies for Native Americans. Tester mentioned a 2013 report by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services that said white Americans live an average of 20 years longer than Native Americans. 

“These statistics are staggering and unacceptable,” Sen. Tester said. “When we’re discussing the IHS, we are literally discussing issues of life or death.”

A.T. Rusty Stafne of the Fort Peck Reservation echoed Tester’s statements when he said, “We have lost fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, and future leaders because they were unable to get the health care they needed … . This is too high a cost to our community.”

Another concern is the money owed to the tribes by IHS. The beneficiaries of IHS are required to pay up front for their health care services, but IHS has not been able to pay them back due to its low funding.

Stafne said that his tribe was experiencing a shortfall of $1.2 million. Carole Lankforde of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes estimated that her tribe was experiencing a shortfall of nearly $2 million.

Darrin Old Coyote disagreed with Robideaux’s claim that money would fix some of the issues with the IHS. In fact, he was concerned about how top-heavy IHS was - nearly 66 percent of last year’s Billings IHS budget of $10 million went to administration while only 15 percent went to actual health care services.

Old Coyote suggested an audit of the Billings IHS office and said that more money could be spent on health care if the area office was eliminated entirely.

“We go to the central office and they send us to the area office,” he said. “And then the area office sends us back to the central office. To tell you the truth, I don’t think we need area offices because they’re duplicating services … . People aren’t getting the proper healthcare. We need to have a direct channel to the decision makers. If we had that, we could have better health care for all people.”

Tester agreed. “We need more accountability and less ping-ponging between offices,” he said.

One of the primary concerns of Fort Belknap’s Mark Azure was his reservation’s ambulance service.

“We’ve had difficulty putting an ambulance service in place on the southern end of the reservation where approximately 50 percent of our residents reside,” he said. “We’ve tried to take it upon ourselves to get that rolling. We had 12 community members take an EMT course and get certified. In the end, the ambulance service hired only one of the 12 individuals and put him on the north end of the reservation, which defeated our original purpose. We still don’t have an ambulance on the south side, so there’s still that lack of care on that end of the reservation … . We recently lost a young tribal member in a vehicle accident on the south side. We don’t know if that ambulance on the south side would have saved her life, but now we’ll never know because it wasn’t there.”

Tim Rosette of the Rocky Boy Reservation echoed the concerns of many participating in the forum when he addressed how IHS lacks mental health services - especially for children 17 and under.

“The tribes in our region … lack qualified in-patient facilities that deal with the nature of the problems facing our children today. For example, we recently had two adolescents attempt suicide. One was 9 years old and one was 14 years old. The only resource they had available was the hospital. Two days later, the hospital said they were fine and could go home … . I think the mental issues associated with these attempts definitely take more than two days to address.”

Other concerns expressed by tribal leaders during the two-hour meeting included limited time with doctors and low staffing of medical facilities.

Prioritizing human life

Both Robideaux and the tribal leaders seemed to agree that lack of sufficient funds was the central cause of most IHS problems. Although they were in disagreement about how to fix this issue, they all thought that IHS needed to work harder to take care of those in its jurisdiction.

“We need to do more to find out what quality healthcare is - as defined by our patients and not by us,” said Robideaux.

Rosette agreed that the problems with IHS need to be solved.

“We need to get answers to these questions,” he said. “We’re told that the federal government doesn’t have the money, but we’re going to spend over $20 billion in fiscal year 2015 on the Department of Defense budget - so there is money for priorities. When are we going to be a priority? What I am asking is that IHS, and the government as a whole, learn to prioritize basic human life.”

Last Updated on Friday, 06 June 2014 12:19

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Water use stopped

After local residents and members of Northern Plains Resource Council alerted the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the state agency put a stop to illegal water use by oil drillers near Belfry, an NPRC news release said.

According to state water law, Ron Wolfe, the gravel pit owner was illegally selling water to the Energy Corp. of America for the new well. DNRC officials in Billings said the gravel pit owner does not have a water right or a permit to sell the water that naturally fills the pit.

“The DNRC was great to work with,” said Mechelle Harper, a nearby resident and member of Carbon County Resource Council. Harper had witnessed several water trucks taking water from the gravel pit. “They really appreciated our work to contact them, and they were able to take care of this right away. They let Ron Wolfe know that he was illegally taking water because he did not have a permit, and that he could be taking water away from farmers and people in the area.” 

Bonnie Martinell, an organic farmer near the well site, also had taken photos of the illegal water use.

The ECA was also informed that this water source was illegal, and that no water could be taken from that pit.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 11:57

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Zinke leads close race

At press time, Steve Daines and John Walsh were cruising to easy wins in their primary races, with Rep. Daines capturing 83 percent of the Republican votes and Sen. Walsh at 64 percent of Democratic voters.

With 630 of 690 precincts reporting, Ryan Zinke had just about a third of the votes in the Republican race for Montana’s U.S. House seat. Corey Stapleton and Matt Rosendale had 29 percent each.

John Lewis was well ahead in the Democratic primary for the House seat, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Yellowstone County vote totals were similar to statewide patterns, except that Corey Stapleton of Billings captured 37 percent of the vote here, beating out Mr. Zinke with 29 percent.

With all Yellowstone County precincts reporting, Rod Souza unofficially led in the race for District Court judge with 33 percent of the vote; William Speare was second with 22 percent.

Most House and Senate primary races were uncontested. On the Republican side, Barry Usher beat Duane Ankney, 52 percent to 48 percent, in Senate District 20; Tonya Shellnut won Senate District 24 with 53 percent of the vote over Rodney Garcia and Keith Winkler; Cary Smith beat Don Roberts with 60 percent of the vote in Senate District 27; Tom Berry beat Ray Gorham with 54 percent of the vote in House District 40; Tom Richmond had 62 percent of the vote over Aaron Langford in House District 50; Tony O’Donnell had 69 percent of the vote over Landan Cheney in House District 51; Sarah Laszloffy defeated Mark Noennig in House District 53, 60 percent to 40 percent; and Jeff Essmann won with 67 percent of the vote over Debra Bonogofsky in House District 54.

There were no contested legislative races on the Democratic ballot, but Jim Ronquillo won his primary for county commissioner against Darryl Wilson, 64 percent to 35 percent.

In Republican county races, Debby Hernandez held onto her county auditor seat with 51 percent of the vote over Rebecca Rhodes West, and William Selph defeated three candidates for county assessor/treasurer/county superintendent of schools.

Measures to establish government review and study commissions were defeated in the cities of Billings and Laurel and in Yellowstone County.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 11:42

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State turning to online auctions

Montana Department of Revenue

HELENA – Starting in June, the Department of Revenue will hold an auction to sell unclaimed safe deposit box contents. For the first time, the state will auction the items online rather than in a physical location because online auctions generally reach more bidders and fetch better prices. Moving the auction online is also part of the Main Street Montana effort to make government more efficient and effective.

Items to be auctioned include coins, jewelry and collectibles that banks and credit unions have held for more than five years and have turned over to the state. The department makes every effort to contact the original owner of the property before auctioning it. If the property is sold, the state will hold the net proceeds from the auction until the rightful owners of the property or their heirs can claim their portion.

The department has contracted Lone Star Auctioneers, an online auction company, to conduct the auction. Those who would like to bid on any item for sale in the auction should register with Lone Star. To register, please visit and click on “Find Your Unclaimed Property.”

Lone Star will notify registered bidders of the auction’s start date well in advance if you request it. You can also check back at the department’s website for the start date.

 Lone Star will notify bidders if they have bid successfully on any of the items.

“We encourage all bidders to familiarize themselves with the terms and conditions of the online auction before the bidding begins,” says Cathy Fitzgerald, Citizens Services Bureau Chief at the Department of Revenue.

Last Updated on Thursday, 05 June 2014 11:32

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Floods close access sites

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks closed five Yellowstone River fishing access sites to the public Monday and Tuesday because of high water and flooding.

Signs and barriers were erected at Buffalo Mirage near Park City, Indian Fort at Reedpoint, Voyagers Rest and Gritty Stone near Worden and Captain Clark east of Pompeys Pillar.

In all instances, high runoff in the Yellowstone River put water across access roads and in the parking sites causing concern for public safety. FWP will continue to monitor and manage the sites and others along south central Montana’s rivers and streams.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 May 2014 12:17

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Broadwater crews at work again

By STEPHEN DOW - The Billings Outpost

Broadwater Avenue is under construction yet again as crews work to find out why the asphalt settled several inches in the eastbound lanes between 16th and 19th streets west.

According to Randy Straus, an engineer with the city’s Public Works Department, the settling started shortly after last year’s $3.6 million Broadwater water and sewer line rehabilitation project was completed.

Straus, who managed that project, said poor patching done on the street over the course of this winter was directly related to the settling problem.

“The poor patching is really the result of trying to do something to make the surface drivable in the dead of winter,” he said.

“The first time we had to dig in there was back in February. But the plants that create hot asphalt that can be mixed and rolled and create a smooth driving surface don’t start up until mid-April. So all of the patchwork that was done prior to then had to be done with other alternatives that are downright inferior to hot mix asphalt.”

One of these alternatives is cold mix asphalt, which is normally used for patching during winter. However, the harsh weather this winter created so many potholes in roads across Billings that the city eventually had to use other alternatives, including concrete, in order to keep Broadwater drivable.

COP Construction, which worked on the water and sewer project, is required under last year’s contract to investigate and correct the asphalt settling. The goal is to have the source of the problem discovered by the end of May and to start resurfacing by the beginning of June. The project is scheduled to be completed by the end of June — before work starts on replacing a water main under Grand Avenue in July.

Straus said COP is paying for all the new asphalt work between 16th and 19th “because the asphalt did not meet project specifications.” And if the settling that occurred is found to be COP’s fault, he said, the company will be on the hook for all the additional project costs.

Straus also noted that “the city isn’t the only entity working on Broadwater right now. Montana-Dakota Utilities is in there doing some work on its gas mains … . They’re moving a gas line out of the street and into an alley north of Broadwater.”

MDU’s project is taking place near Broadwater and 19th Street West, which was also the site of a gas leak earlier this week. Straus said MDU’s work won’t affect the city’s project on Broadwater.

Despite all of the construction, businesses on Broadwater apparently are faring better than they did during last year’s summer-long project.

Tom Swoboda, the owner of Broadwater Mercantile, at 1844 Broadwater, said this year’s construction is “definitely better than last year when they had the road blocked off for the whole damn summer.” He also said that he doesn’t think he’s lost any business because of this year’s project.

While the road work doesn’t seem to be affecting Broadwater businesses, the two projects will no doubt add to the challenges that drivers will have to deal with on the highly traveled road through the summer.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 23:18

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Wilson in race

EDITOR’S NOTE: Democrat Darryl Wilson is a candidate for Yellowstone County commissioner against Republican John Ostlund. Democrat Jim Ronquillo also is a candidate for the seat. Here is Mr. Wilson’s edited statement.

I was born and raised in our community with my wife, our three grown children and two grandchildren where we have made Billings our home. I worked for the Montana Department of Transportation for 10 years in engineering and right of way, and did private consulting work for the city of Billings in the ’80s for the airport expansion and Heights sewer project.

I spent 15 years managing and developing thousands of acres of railroad property for the Burlington Northern Railroad, Glacier Park Co. and Trillium Corp. I have had my own real estate company for about the past 10 years and understand business development and community involvement.

I have always tried to be involved in our community by volunteering on the Board of Directors for Big Sky Federal Credit Union, Boy Scouts of America and the Yellowstone River Parks Association.

When our community was offered the old Federal Courthouse building, we should have accepted it immediately no matter the potential environmental issues. Our County Attorney’s Office could have utilized the space immediately, and we could have relocated the Sheriff’s Office there, tearing down that building for additional parking. I feel our commissioners do not appreciate the dedication and commitment our county employees offer to our community and should have negotiated in good faith with them when their contracts came due.

We need to immediately pass a 20-year bond issue of probably $100 million to complete an underpass or overpass at 27th Street and also on Monad Road. We would require the railroad to donate the land and pay an impact fee. We would pass a countywide gasoline tax of, say, 2 cents per gallon, and since this is on the state system, we would insist that the Montana Department of Transportation participate in the cost.

We need to develop a rail-served heavy industry park of at least 600 acres. This can be a joint venture between the railroads, private landowners and the city-county. It is possible – I have done it in Fargo, N.D., with the Cheyenne Industrial Center.

We need to look at combining some city-county agencies. For instance, the Parks Department. The city has a great understanding of the importance of trails, bike lanes, etc., and staff to oversee it.

 A healthy community is a vibrant community.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 23:16

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Suit filed over mining


BILLINGS – Coal mining in the Bull Mountains may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Cracks in the earth related to mining, called subsidence cracks, are one of the reasons landowners have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for granting a 2012 coal lease in Musselshell County.

Steve Charter is one of the ranchers involved. He explains that the BLM study that claimed surface effects would be minimal can’t possibly be true based on what’s being observed at other nearby mines. And there are below-ground concerns, too, he says.

“Our main water aquifer is above the coal seam, so, you know, we’re real worried that, that could be damaged,” Charter warns.

Charter is chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, which filed the suit with landowners. He says some of the cracks have been 15 feet wide and 19 feet deep.

Sometimes they heal on their own after the coal is mined, but not always - and the cracks are a livestock safety hazard.

He contends that the BLM conclusion of “minimal impact” was based on data gathered in 1990 – before the area was mined.

“They could have actually went and looked at what was actually happening, and instead of that, they took 20-year old, stale data,” he says.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 23:05

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Land use restricted

Bureau of Reclamation has implemented motor vehicle restrictions to specific Reclamation lands along the Yellowstone River near Huntley.  The gated restriction area is located off of Creekmore Road and is southwest of Huntley.

“Access to the area by foot will continue to be allowed, but motor vehicle access will be limited due to the large amount of off-road vehicle damage to natural resources and other unauthorized uses.  Restricting vehicular access will allow the area time to regenerate and deter the unauthorized use,” said Jeff Baumberger, Supervisory Resource Specialist. 

Motor vehicle travel across open country, especially with soggy soils, is particularly damaging as native vegetation is destroyed and weed infestations will begin.

The section of bottomland also receives large amounts of trash left onsite from gatherings and bonfires. Graffiti is also becoming an issue on the sandstone bluffs overlooking the restricted area.

Last Updated on Thursday, 22 May 2014 22:51

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Pryor wild horses provide glimpse of Old West


Nestled between the Big Horn National Recreation Area and the Pryor Mountains of the Custer National Forest is the 38,000-acre crown jewel of wild horse management areas: the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.

One of the first two wild horse sanctuaries in the nation, the Pryor range was established in 1968 (three years before the passing of the Federal Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act) to protect the iconic Colonial Spanish horse genetics preserved in the herd.

Genetic testing shows the herd is one of the purest strains of the original horses brought to the New World by Spanish explorers. Their escapees became the herds that supplied Native Americans with the original “Indian ponies.”

Some of the horses still exhibit primitive “Old World” markings such as dorsal stripes on their backs and tiger stripes on their rumps. Many of the other markers of the old world origins such as small heads, convex ears and smallish body size (many weigh less than 900 pounds) are prevalent. When the herd is reduced, those without Colonial Spanish traits are among the first selected for culling.

While many of the federal wild horse ranges throughout the western United States are faced with the daunting task of warehousing thousands of unwanted mustangs, the Pryor herd seems to always have adoptees for the gentle, strong-hoofed, surefooted equines.

By law the herd is supposed to be between 90 and 120 animals. Some geneticists warn that a population below 120 will cause inbreeding and a lack of the genetic diversity required to maintain herd health.

The last population census claimed 160 horses on the range. The population is slowly creeping up each year by five to 10 animals. There will be a recount in June to correct for those that did not survive the winter and count new foals.

On average, 60 percent of the foals survive their first year. The main cause of colt mortality is abandonment, being stepped on, falling off the prominent cliffs, winter and drought. Their main predator, once the colts are old enough to keep up with the herd, are cougars.

The desired gender makeup of the herd is 50/50 but the current make up is 45 percent male and 55 percent female. Of the horses above the age of 20, four are stallions and 17 are mares. In the breeding population, 26 are stallions and 26 are mares.

To keep the population in check, mares below the age of 5 and above the age of 10 are darted with Porcine Zona Pellucide as the preferred method of birth control. The mares are approached on foot and darted in the hip at about 30 yards.

The only complications seem to be that the mares live longer and occasionally develop temporary nodules at the injection site. Without fertility control, there would be an annual herd growth of about 25 horses; with it, the average is about 12.

According to Jared Bybee, the wild horse and burro specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Billings Office, the desired grazing impact is to consume no more than 45 percent of the available forage based on dry year growth patterns. However, the range is currently utilized from 21 percent to 89 percent, which can cause soil erosion.

Specialist Bybee, who has a degree in range management, says that with the law not allowing cross fencing, or herding of the horses, the only option is to “give them a reason to graze somewhere else.” Acknowledging that the older horses will always follow the snow line up to high grazing, he hopes to get the younger horses to frequent the 10 new water developments and use lower grazing opportunities.

While the Pryor herd boasts among the purest strain of Spanish Colonial genes in America, the horses are not pure. A stallion from Wyoming in the late ’80s was introduced to add to genetic diversity in the herd, which was the last intentional introduction. The entire range is fenced and, despite rumors to the contrary, Bybee maintains that no mustangs roam the national forest adjacent to the sanctuary. The lesser genetic strains that show up in the tests include common light riding and racing type ranch horses used over time. Prevalent in these is quarter horse genetics.

Of the BLM’s $300,000 budget for this area, only $85,000 is dedicated to range projects, fertility control and water projects on the 38,000-acre range. The viewing of the horses is a growing destination for many on vacation and locals. When the horses are at lower elevations, they can be seen from all-weather roads in the Bighorn Canyon.

Later in the season, many Montana families mount four wheelers and 4x4 vehicles to go up the Pryor Mountains and drop into the top of the range, hoping to catch a glimpse of the West’s living history.

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 May 2014 09:44

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