Leaders of Montana's tribes lined up with others Thursday to oppose a decision to cut two tribal health positions from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
A budget subcommittee in February approved removing the positions of the tribal liaison and director of American Indian health within the department. On Thursday the House Appropriations Committee heard debate on the issue as part of a hearing on the health department's budget.
The reduction saves the state about $240,817 in state general funds, $207,103 in federal funds and $33,715 in state special funds.
The measure passed the subcommittee with support from Republicans and opposition from some Republicans and all Democrats on the committee.
"Those (positions) are really crucial for the tribes here in Montana," said Fort Belknap President Andy Werk Jr. "They really are a link with the tribes. ... There needs to be some type of consultation if those positions are going to be cut, in accordance with Montana law. ... I can't say enough (or) stress enough how crucial those positions are for our government-to-government relationship here in Montana."
Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, has an amendment to the state budget replacing the positions that he's expected to bring when the House Appropriations Committee takes up the health department's budget. That could come as soon as Friday.
Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes Councilman Jestin Dupree, who is also vice chair for the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, said he couldn't think of any reason to cut the two positions.
When Dupree was denied services in a Poplar emergency room, he said one of the people in a position being cut helped him get medical care. Dupree made the comparison between his combat tours in the U.S. Army and challenges identifying the enemy to the actions of the Legislature.
"Our enemy was hard to spot because they were in civilian clothes and blended in with the civilian population," Dupree said. "I honestly feel the same way when it comes to our state Capitol lately. Why are we not moving forward with state-tribal relations instead of the proposal to cut these positions? It's taking a step backward and it's disheartening to come to Helena in order to defend one of our lifelines to the Montana health office."
Anna Whiting Sorrell, the former head of the state health department under Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said that the positions were important to addressing life-expectancy disparities between Natives and non-Natives. Whiting Sorrell also explained the complexities of how Natives in the state can access health care, saying that the two positions helped navigate that and build trust.
Shelly Fyant, the chair of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the positions have been vital in responding to the pandemic in Montana, which has had an outsized effect on the Native community in Montana.
"(One position) helped facilitate the communication and follow-through in this new and complicated endeavor," Fyant said of the vaccine rollout and distribution to Montana's tribal communities.
Rep. Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, who chaired the subcommittee on the health department's budget, said Thursday the cut was made because the positions were viewed by some as redundant.
"We've got the Indian health director in (the department's Health Resources Division) ... the governor's office has tribal relations, we've got urban Indian health clinics throughout the state. We also have (Indian Health Services) that delivers a lot of tribal relations," Regier said.
But Adam Meier, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to head up the state health department, said he did not view the positions as duplicative.
"They're all very complementary to each other. We need to make sure that we understand that there's distinct roles and distinct programs elements that require very specialized experience," Meier said.
A letter signed by by more than a dozen organizations that work in health care, patient advocacy and public health community and sent to the committee Wednesday also urged for the positions to be restored.