Indian Health Service hired criminals, allowed theft of drugs, investigators say

By Matthew Daly, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Report: Indian Health Service hired criminals

WASHINGTON — The federal Indian Health Service has hired convicted criminals, failed to stop employees from stealing narcotics and allowed workers to take paid leave for more than a year while being investigated for misconduct, a federal investigation has found.

The investigation disclosed years of mismanagement that have led to poor patient care, long-term vacancies and other problems at the Aberdeen Area of the Indian Health Service, which includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

In one case, an employee at a Rapid City, S.D., pharmacy stole large quantities of Vicodin and Tramadol, narcotics that are used for pain relief, and resold them for cash. The IHS pharmacy lacked basic security controls, such as security cameras or requiring two people to count inventory, the report said.

Gerald Roy, deputy inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the Aberdeen office was chronically mismanaged, with employee misconduct and even theft of drugs routine. In at least two cases, employees who had been convicted of crimes were rehired by the health service in the same region where the crimes were committed, he said Tuesday.

The Indian Affairs committee is investigating the Aberdeen IHS office, which has been plagued for years by complaints of mismanagement. A final report is expected by the end of the year.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the panel’s chairman, said Tuesday that the Aberdeen office “appears to me to be completely dysfunctional.”

Dorgan said he was stunned to learn that the region’s deputy director had been placed on paid leave for undisclosed reasons for more than a year. The official, Shelly R. Harris, has stayed home, at taxpayer expense, while allegations against her are investigated, said Charlene Red Thunder, director of the Aberdeen region.

An IHS spokesman said Harris is paid $125,109 per year. He declined to comment on the allegations against her or say when they may be resolved, citing privacy laws.

Dorgan called the lengthy leave unacceptable and said it was impossible to believe that a private-sector employer would allow such an action. “Not on your life!” he said.

“It all comes back to effective management,” Dorgan told IHS officials. “You say, ‘Here are our expectations. Meet it or leave.’ “

Red Thunder and Yvette Roubideaux, director of the IHS, said they were working to correct problems at the agency.

“We are starting to hold more people accountable,” Roubideaux said, noting that five service unit directors have resigned or been fired in the past two years.

“We have a serious problem at Aberdeen,” Roubideaux told Dorgan. “The Aberdeen area must do a better job.”

The Aberdeen office serves more than 100,000 Indians on reservations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa. The region includes nine hospitals, eight health centers, two school health stations, and several smaller health stations and satellite clinics.

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