TAHLEQUAH, Okla. -The Cherokee Nation has negotiated a $29.5 million settlement with Indian Health Service. The settlement recoups contract support costs unpaid to the tribe for nearly a decade.
Principal Chief Bill John Baker announced at Monday night's Tribal Council meeting that the tribe will receive a lump sum payment.
The tribe was underpaid by the federal government between 2005 and 2013, resulting in more than $31 million, including interest, in underpayments.
"The settlement is a major milestone for the Cherokee Nation and our health centers. Payment of these millions of dollars from the federal government is long overdue, and now these funds will be utilized to provide expanded and improved health care services to our citizens. We will be able to equip our new centers with state-of-the-art medical devices and technology," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. "Native people have been historically underserved when it comes to access to quality care, and this is a step in a positive direction."
The Cherokee Nation operates eight health centers and W.W. Hastings Hospital. The entire health system sees more than one million patient visits per year. To staff and treat those patients, the tribe uses third-party billing, tribal funds and a $150 million compact with Indian Health Service, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The federal agency is required to pay the Cherokee Nation a percentage each year for indirect costs to support health contracts, such as Internet technology, human resources, finance and other infrastructure. The Cherokee Nation filed claims after those funds went unpaid for many years.
"I am extremely pleased the Cherokee Nation is finally going to recoup funds that were owed to us for so long," said Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree, who negotiated the settlement. "These funds will be put to great use in helping meet the needs of the Cherokee people. Many thanks should be given to the dedicated employees in our self-governance, finance and health services departments."
In other business, Tribal Council increased the tribe's operating budget by $3.7 million. The increase included $1.4 million from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and other funding to the tribe's commercial loan fund. It also included $700,000 from Indian Health Service for equipment in the W.W. Hastings Hospital physical therapy building expansion.
"Any time the Cherokee Nation is able to acquire outside funding to enhance our programs, it is a win-win," said Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Speaker Tina Glory-Jordan. "The grant money received to build our commercial loan fund will help boost local economies by increasing Cherokee small-business owners. The acquisition of IHS dollars will also ensure our citizens have the best physical therapy equipment available for the rehabilitation from injuries and surgeries."
The Tribal Council also approved submitting a Cherokee Nation Forest Management Plan to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that will allow for continued development and utilization of existing commercial timber while focusing on natural resource conservation.
The next Tribal Council meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m., August 11, at the W.W. Keeler Complex in Tahlequah.