It took 609 days, but the US Senate has finally (unanimously) confirmed President Biden’s choice to head the Indian Health Service (IHS: Roselyn Tso.)
President Biden nominated Tso in March 2022, and she was formally sworn in on September 27, 2022. The long-awaited confirmation filled a space that hadn’t had a permanent director since Michael Weahkee, a Pueblo of Zuni citizen, stepped down in 2021. In the interim, Elizabeth Fowler, of the Comanche Nation, served as acting director.
Tso’s resume includes almost 40 years of professional experience working at all levels of the IHS. Before taking over as IHS director, she led the IHS Navajo area, the largest IHS regional area, managing more than 4000 employees and a budget of nearly $1 billion.
She also brings “decades of lived experience as a member of the Navajo Nation,” she said in a 40-minute Senate hearing with the US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May.
The first Navajo Nation citizen to head the IHS (and only the second woman to do so), Tso introduced herself in Navajo: Deeschii’nii (Start of the Red Streak People) and born for Hashk’aa hadzohi (Yucca Fruit Strung Out). “This is a historic achievement for all of our Navajo people and tribal nations across the country,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said. “To have one of our own Navajo members in the highest position with IHS is remarkable.”
Tso spoke of having to “navigate the services provided by the Agency for myself, family, and friends.” Her personal and professional backgrounds, she said, help her understand how patients experience the system and how that can be improved. “The health care provided at IHS is critical for those we serve. I understand this not just because I work there,” she said. “My family relies on IHS. My friends rely on IHS. I rely on the IHS.”
The long lacuna in confirming a permanent IHS director left the Native peoples particularly vulnerable—when the COVID-19 pandemic essentially worsened the existing problems they faced, such as diabetes mellitus and cancer. Life expectancy for Native people fell by more than 6 years between 2019 and 2021, to 65 years, compared with the US average of 76 years.
Without a full-time IHS leader, the National Council of Urban Indian Health said in a statement, tribal nations and other Native health care providers struggled to raise and address the issues they were facing amid the pandemic. “Since the resignation of Rear Admiral Weahkee, there have been countless requests from Indian Country calling on Congress and the Administration to nominate a new IHS director to address the growing health disparities experienced by AI/ANs.”
Tso laid out her priorities in her May testimony: creating a more unified health care system using the latest technology to develop centralized systems; improving accountability, transparency, and patient safety; addressing workforce needs and challenges, improving recruitment and retention.
Meeting her goals, she noted, would take “strong partnerships and communication with our Tribal partners…. Each tribe has unique needs, and those needs cannot be met if you do not understand them.”