Merkley critical of effort to treat Native Americans as a race

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said he does not support a Trump administration effort to start treating Tribal members as a race instead of as members of sovereign nations.

Merkley did not hesitate to criticize the effort following his Friday, May 4, meeting with Tribal Council.

“When it comes to the Trump administration, it starts from a place where my assumption is it is probably a bad idea,” Merkley said. “And since it regards undermining Tribal sovereignty, I’m certain that it is a bad idea.”

Merkley was one of 10 U.S. Senators who signed an April 27 letter to Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar expressing concerns about a Jan. 17 “Dear Tribal Leader” letter that said the federal agency is unable to require states to exempt American Indians and Alaska Natives from work and community engagement requirements because it is “constrained by statute.”

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley meets with the Grand Ronde Tribal Council in Tribal Council’s conference room on Friday, May 4. Tribal Council, led by Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy, discussed various issues with Merkley, including federal law enforcement funding for Terminated Tribes, sea lion predation of salmon and lamprey at Willamette Falls, leasing of Tribal lands for economic development and Tribal efforts to grow hemp. Kennedy also provided Merkley with background on the Tribe’s history and its efforts to develop the Grand Ronde area since 1983’s Restoration. (Photo by Michelle Alaimo)

“The views expressed fail to recognize the unique legal status of Indian Tribes and their members under federal law, the U.S. Constitution, treaties and federal trust relationship,” the letter states.

Nationwide, Tribal leaders have been seeking an exemption from new Medicaid work rules being introduced in several states, but Trump administration officials in the Health & Human Services Department contend that Tribes are a race rather than separate governments. They contend that exempting Tribal members from Medicaid work rules would be illegal preferential treatment.

The website Politico reported in April that the new ruling was driven by political appointees in the general counsel and civil rights offices at Health & Human Services.

Tribes insist that any claim of “racial preference” is moot because they’re constitutionally protected as separate governments, dating back to treaties signed by President George Washington and reaffirmed under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

“The United States has a legal responsibility to provide health care to Native Americans,” said Mary Smith, acting head of the Indian Health Service during the Obama administration and a member of the Cherokee Nation. “It’s the largest prepaid health system in the world – they’ve paid through land and massacres – and now you’re going to take away health care and add a work requirement?”

Tribal leaders and public health advocates also worry that Medicaid work rules are just the start. Trump is eyeing similar changes for the nation’s welfare programs, which almost 3 million Native Americans rely on.

The Trump administration’s early relationship with Native American Tribes has been less than friendly. Trump stopped holding the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference instituted by the Obama administration and held annually. He has also proposed significant cuts for the Indian Health Service in last year’s budget, although Congress ignored those cuts in its funding package approved in March.

This year, the White House has proposed eliminating popular initiatives like the community health representative program.

“Work requirements will be devastating,” Smith said. “I don’t know how you would implement it. There are not jobs to be had on the Reservation.”

The letter co-signed by Merkley asked the Department of Health & Human Services to supply information on how the department and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reached their conclusion that allowing exemptions for American Indians and Alaska Natives “could raise civil rights concerns.” They have yet to receive a response, Merkley’s state communications director, Sara Hottman, said.

 

Includes information from Politico.com.