Indian Health Service Head to Face Questions on Failure to Stop Doctor Who Abused Patients
A still of Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, acting head of the U.S. Indian Health Service, from the FRONTLINE and Wall Street Journal documentary, "Predator on the Reservation."
Lawmakers summoned the U.S. Indian Health Service’s leader to answer for the agency’s failure to stop a pediatrician from sexually abusing his child patients and a slate of longstanding problems with the quality of the agency’s care, according to a letter from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The letter, sent Thursday, asks Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, the IHS’s acting leader, to brief committee staff on the failures. Members of the committee, which oversees the IHS, said in interviews they expect to hold oversight hearings on the agency later this year.
“I will fight for a committee hearing on Indian Health Service issues,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., a committee member who signed the letter. “We need to instill a leadership culture in IHS that no longer tolerates bad behavior.”
The letter is the latest in a salvo of congressional inquiries since an investigation last month by The Wall Street Journal and FRONTLINE showed IHS had ignored warnings signs about the pedophile pediatrician for decades, transferred the problem doctor from one reservation to another, and tried to silence a whistleblower who accused him.
Last week the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s inspector general to conduct a review of the IHS safeguards to prevent such conduct, “including the process and procedures for transferring employees within the agency.”
That follows a request for a separate inspector general review by HHS Secretary Alex Azar last month. The Indian Affairs Committee is holding a hearing on the agency next week. “The committee expects a thorough investigation,” a spokeswoman for chairman John Hoeven, R-N.D., said.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., also wrote to Adm. Weahkee late last month inquiring about the agency’s handling of Stanley Patrick Weber, the pediatrician who sexually abused patients. He asked, among other things, how the agency would hold accountable people who “covered up or turned a blind eye to the repeated concerns raised by Mr. Weber’s behavior.”
A statement provided by an IHS spokeswoman said the agency has implemented new policies to better protect against and respond to the sexual abuse of children. “In order to have complete confidence in the integrity of the federal government and to achieve our agency mission and goals, IHS believes we must work positively and cooperatively with our external authorities, including the HHS Office of the Inspector General,” the statement said.
Mr. Weber worked at an IHS hospital in Browning, Mont., in the mid-1990s. After colleagues complained he might be a pedophile, the agency transferred him to another reservation hospital in Pine Ridge, S.D., where he continued to work — despite a series of allegations about his conduct — for another 21 years. One senior agency official in Pine Ridge told the Journal and FRONTLINE that he didn’t relay allegations to law enforcement because he feared his superiors would punish him for doing so.
Mr. Weber was convicted in September of sexually abusing two of his former patients as children in Montana. He is scheduled to stand trial for sexually assaulting four more later this year in South Dakota. Mr. Weber is appealing the Montana verdict.
The Indian Health Service ordered an outside investigation into the episode after receiving questions from the Journal and FRONTLINE in October. Proposals are due from contractors seeking to carry out the probe later this month, contracting records show.
“If there are individuals who were aware that something was going on” but didn’t speak up, Adm. Weahkee said in an earlier interview, “then you’re basically culpable and complicit in those actions.” Adm. Weahkee took the agency’s helm after Mr. Weber had resigned amid an investigation.
“It shouldn’t take an article from a journalist outside of the organization to force them to have an investigation in this matter,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who sits on the Energy and Commerce committee, said in an interview. “We have seen too many failure points with health care. Now we’re seeing abuse of patients.”
Rep. Mullin said he and other committee members had identified a lack of standard operating procedures across IHS facilities and weaknesses in communication between the agency’s outposts that could be improved. He also noted that reform at the Indian Health Service has eluded Congress before, in part because lawmakers haven’t prioritized the agency.
If the situation with Mr. Weber had happened in a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, “we would have had all kinds of legislation flying,” said Rep. Mullin.