ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico Indigenous tribe is suing the U.S. government, claiming that federal health officials have violated the law by ending emergency and in-patient medical care at a hospital on tribal lands.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said during a briefing Friday that the lack of emergency health care services could not have come at a worse time. Like other Native American communities across the U.S., the pueblo of about 3,000 people has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Tribal officials maintain that the Indian Health Service is required under federal law to provide a year's notice to Congress whenever it plans to close one of its hospitals. They say that didn't happen before critical services were halted last fall at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit hospital.
Criticism of the Indian Health Service and chronic funding inadequacies have spanned decades and numerous presidential administrations. Lawyers for Acoma said the closure of the hospital marks the latest example as the agency moves to downsize smaller hospitals in favor of having centralized health care facilities.
Tribal officials also pointed to the availability of federal coronavirus relief funding, saying the agency has refused to tap that money to help address what Vallo called “a life-and-death situation” at Acoma.
“While we have pleaded with the Indian Health Service in letters, emails and phone calls to reverse its decision and restore the hospital to full operational capacity, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” Vallo said. “We have been given one bureaucratic excuse after another for the agency’s unconscionable decision.”
At least one tribal member who had a heart attack died after emergency services were no longer available at the hospital, he said.
Vallo said court action was the tribe's only option. The lawsuit is asking that current levels of service be maintained until a year after notice is given to Congress.
In an initial ruling Friday, a judge dismissed the agency’s claims that shutting down the hospital was within the government’s discretion and granted the pueblo's request for a temporary restraining order calling for services be maintained for at least two weeks until a hearing on a preliminary injunction.
The Indian Health Service said in a statement that there are not enough health care workers to provide inpatient and emergency department services at the hospital, which serves Acoma and other neighboring tribal communities.
The agency also disputed claims that it was required to give advance notice of the hospital's closure since it was considered a temporary move that resulted from safety concerns because of the lack of staff.
Indian Health Service spokesman Joshua Barnett said the agency remains committed to providing comprehensive care to Acoma patients but acknowledged that permanent changes would be coming.
Questions about the hospital's future came up last year after the Indian Health Service received a proposal from Laguna Pueblo, a neighboring community that had plans to open a new health clinic that would offer similar services.
Citing a reduction in funds for federally operated programs, the agency indicated at the time that it would redesign what would be offered at Acoma and began notifying employees — prompting many to retire, resign or transfer.
The new health center at Laguna was expected to open in February, but Barnett did not say what the agency was doing to fill the void left by the lack of emergency and in-patient care at Acoma.
The nearest hospital to Acoma and the other pueblos is about an hour drive away in Albuquerque.
Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation, state lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have written letters to federal officials in support of Acoma. In her latest letter, Lujan Grisham asked President Joe Biden to step in and reverse the agency's decision.
“This administration has the opportunity and, indeed, the responsibility to cure the historical institutional racism that has created disparities in access to quality healthcare for American Indians. Your administration can start with the IHS system,” Lujan Grisham wrote.
Gregg Smith, the tribe's Washington-based legal counsel, said that model puts more distance between Native Americans and health care.
“If your homeland doesn't have the necessary medical services, in a sense it is not a habitable place at some level," he said. “Federal law says the federal government has to provide to make these reservations habitable and when they pull back, Acoma is less habitable now or will be less habitable when this hospital is downsized, if they succeed.”
Vallo said the Indian Health Service's decision has created what he described as Third World conditions for the tribe. Aside from emergency and in-patient services, women’s health care services, optometry, podiatry and pediatric care also were discontinued.
“No other town, city or civilized country would find this acceptable,” Vallo said. “Yet, it happens way too often in Native American communities.”