By Mimi Dwyer
(Reuters) - Two Republican Senators introduced a bill on Thursday aimed at improving the Indian Health Service, the embattled federal agency that provides healthcare to Native Americans on reservations.
Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who introduced the legislation with Senator John Thune of South Dakota, said in a statement that it was "an important first step" toward ensuring tribal members receive proper healthcare.
The Indian Health Service Accountability Act would expedite discipline and firing of problem IHS employees, as well as offer more competitive salaries and hiring incentives.
The law would require that reports on inspections of IHS hospitals and clinics by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) be posted on the facilities' websites.
The Inspector General of Health and Human Services, which oversees the IHS, would investigate patient deaths at IHS facilities.
Substandard care has long been an issue for IHS hospitals and clinics, especially in the Great Plains region of South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, home to some of the nation's poorest Native American tribes. Many IHS facilities struggle to recruit staff due to their remote locations and low pay rates.
Tribal hospitals in Pine Ridge, South Dakota and Rosebud, South Dakota, have drawn particular scrutiny from tribal leadership and from Congress. One inspection of Rosebud Hospital in November found evidence of untreated tuberculosis, unsterilized handwashed surgical equipment and accounts of a premature baby born on a bathroom floor.
Those findings and others prompted the IHS to close Rosebud's emergency department in December. CMS had also threatened to revoke the two hospitals' accreditation, though it signed an improvement agreement this month with the pair that keeps their billing capabilities in place.
On Tuesday, IHS awarded an Arizona-based private healthcare staffing company a contract for up to $60 million to provide employees for the shuttered emergency room at Rosebud as well as at Pine Ridge and at a hospital in Winnebago, Nebraska.
(Reporting by Mimi Dwyer; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)