Lawmakers Pressure U.S. Indian Health Service to Release Sex Abuse Report
Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said that the IHS ran the risk of an ’appearance of a desire to avoid accountability.’ Pictured here at a news conference on Feb. 13, 2020. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Lawmakers who oversee the U.S. Indian Health Service are demanding the health care agency release a report on its mishandling of a pedophile doctor that it wants to keep confidential, saying the agency must be held accountable.
On Monday, Sen. Tom Udall, (D., N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a statement that the IHS ran the risk of an “appearance of a desire to avoid accountability” if it didn’t disclose “as much of the report as is possible, as soon as possible.” The report focused on the IHS’s failure to protect children during the nearly 30-year-career of staff pediatrician, Stanley Patrick Weber, who was later convicted of sexually abusing Native American boys.
Also on Monday, Sen. Steve Daines (R., Mont.), in a letter to Alex Azar, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the IHS, wrote: “I am concerned over the lack of transparency with this report, and I strongly urge you to make this report public.”
The IHS commissioned the independent investigation last May, months after The Wall Street Journal and FRONTLINE jointly reported that IHS employees ignored warnings about Weber’s abuse of Native American boys for years and shuffled him from one reservation to another despite suspicions.
Last week, the agency said it wouldn’t release the report prepared by contractor Integritas Creative Solutions LLC, because it considered its findings confidential under a 2010 law. That stance prompted anger from victims’ families, former employees and tribal officials.
Mr. Udall said that IHS, which provides health care to about 2.6 million Native Americans, needed to provide a detailed justification to Congress of any legal barriers it was using to keep the report confidential.
Mr. Daines said the agency could release the report but make “appropriate redactions” to protect the privacy of patients and Weber’s victims.
The IHS said it is committed to transparency and is following the law in keeping the report confidential. “Staff are encouraged to participate in these reviews and to be as transparent as possible with the understanding that the goal is to improve the system, not to take punitive action,” the agency said.
The IHS also said it would release a report to Congressional committees overseeing the agency with certain redactions “as soon as possible.”
Other lawmakers joined Udall and Daines in urging more transparency from the IHS after its contractor completed the report last month.
“Montanans, and all Americans, expect accountability from their government, perhaps no more so than when a government agency has deeply failed the people it is intended to serve,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D., Mont.), in a statement.
In March 2019, Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, the IHS’s current leader, told Congress the agency planned to hire a contractor to conduct “what we’re framing as a medical quality assurance review.” In addition to reviewing internal documents, the contractor would “interview not only our own employees but community members, tribal members, law enforcement, and others.”
That work was completed last month by Integritas. The IHS claims that the records can’t be disclosed because of the 2010 law, which makes records of IHS “medical quality assurance programs” and “medical treatment review committees” confidential and privileged. It is an interpretation some legal experts question, saying similar state laws are meant to protect records such as those created by doctors reviewing each other’s medical mistakes, not mismanagement by administrators.
Integritas’s principle, Carl Caulk, said his contract with the IHS bound him from discussing his company’s findings.
After facing inquiries earlier this month from lawmakers, the IHS said it would prepare an executive summary of the report that would feature “broad findings and recommendations.” The agency didn’t say when it would release that document, either.
One of Weber’s victims, a prison inmate who testified at his September trial in South Dakota, said he was stunned to learn about the agency’s position on releasing the report.
“Wait, even the victims don’t have no right to see what the report says?” said the man, who had described years of abuse by the pediatrician in his trial testimony. “We should be able to see what was what and who knew what.”
Adm. Weahkee didn’t respond to requests for comment about the decision to label the report a confidential “quality assurance review.”
“This medical quality assurance review was specifically intended to identify further improvements IHS can implement to better protect patients,” the IHS said in its statement. “This focus is the basis of the report’s classification as a medical quality assurance record.”
Meantime, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has begun a broad investigation into how the IHS handles misconduct and poor care by its staff as fallout continues over the Weber case. The congressional watchdog initially received a request from the Indian Affairs committee for the probe of IHS last May.
Jessica Farb, a GAO official overseeing the review, said the inquiry is examining how the agency handles “poor performance” and misconduct at all levels from IHS headquarters in Rockville, Md., down to the hospital level. The watchdog said it would be interviewing IHS staff across nine of the geographic regions it serves, including at numerous IHS facilities.
Earlier this month, Weber was sentenced to five lifetime prison terms, following convictions for sexually abusing six boys on two reservations. Weber is appealing one of the convictions. The other conviction was upheld on appeal earlier this month.
His lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This story has been updated with comments from the IHS.