Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker delivered testimony before the U.S. House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, April 8. He addressed the need for Indian Health Services to restart its joint venture construction program with tribes this year, as well as the significance of the Tribal 8(a) program and problems because of the perceived cap.
Chief Baker’s testimony is as follows:
I am Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation, the largest sovereign Indian Nation in the United States.
Thank you for this opportunity to share a few of our priorities in the coming year. The Joint Venture Construction Program is a public-private partnership that allows tribes to build health facilities. The funding comes from the tribe’s own resources.
Tribes apply for joint venture during a competitive process, and IHS selects the facilities to use the program. Then IHS agrees to fund staffing after construction is completed. This program has enabled Indian country to build badly needed facilities.
Since 1992, more than 20 health facilities have been built, improving health care in Indian country and reducing the cost to the federal government. Innovative programs, like joint venture, can help reduce the $2.2 billion health construction backlog.
Last year, Cherokee Nation Businesses committed $100 million to expand and improve our health care systems. Our plan includes building a new hospital in our capital city, Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
This will replace our existing hospital, which was built three decades ago and constructed to serve 65,000 patient visits annually. We outgrew that structure long ago, seeing over 400,000 patient visits last year.
The Cherokee Nation desperately needs a state-of-the-art hospital, and we’ve committed millions to the project. I’m here seeking an opportunity to compete for the right to partner with IHS through a joint venture. I appreciate this subcommittee’s continued support of the joint venture program, and thank you for the inclusion of past report language.
I thank Representatives Cole and McCollum for leading a bipartisan letter to IHS to reopen this program, and Representatives Moran, Simpson, Joyce and Valadao for signing on to this letter. On its website, IHS states they anticipate opening the applications in late 2013 – last year – and it’s still not done.
The only thing delaying construction is the agency’s delay in reopening the program. I request that the subcommittee urge IHS to reopen the Joint Venture Construction Program.
Second, the Cherokee Nation invests in our communities in countless other ways, including education and infrastructure. We strive to be good neighbors, and we are, in part, through the Native 8(a) program.
We have leveraged the program to diversify our non-gaming portfolio, creating opportunities for our tribal citizens and non-citizens alike. One hundred percent of the profits are either reinvested in our businesses, creating jobs, or used to provide services for our citizens.
Congress recently altered the 8(a) program through the National Defense Authorization Act. Section 811 of that act requires a justification and approval for all direct awards within the program over $20 million for the life of the contract. This figure was intended to be a threshold.
However, many federal agencies believe it is a cap. We understand the need for a threshold—and encourage accountability in federal contracting—but the perceived cap is a serious concern.
This policy has had a drastic effect on Indian country and the Cherokee Nation. A GOA report revealed a 60 percent decline in direct awards and revealed no new direct awards above the threshold.
We respectfully request the subcommittee work to clarify language that the threshold is not a cap. The 8(a) program and Joint Venture Construction Program are important recognitions of the federal trust responsibility.
As you consider your bill, please urge IHS to reopen the joint venture program this year, and consider guidance for the Native 8(a) program that confirms congressional intent.
Thank you for your continued support of Indian country, for your service to this country, and for giving me an opportunity to address you this morning.