Lawmakers Urge Azar to Release Indian Health Service Report on Sexual Abuse
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar testifies before the House Appropriations Committee on February 26, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Senate lawmakers gave the nation’s top health official on Wednesday a deadline of seven business days to release a controversial report said to detail gross mismanagement by the U.S. Indian Health Service in its handling of a pedophile doctor who abused Native American boys.
The report, which the agency maintains is confidential, is “damning to the Indian Health Service” and contains new revelations about the agency’s widespread failings to stop pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber from abusing his patients, according to a person who has viewed a redacted version.
The letter, from four Democrats on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs led by vice chairman Tom Udall of New Mexico, demanded that Human Services Secretary Alex Azar release an unredacted version of the report and accused the agency of failing to fulfill its promises of transparency. The Indian Health Service is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Indian Affairs committee has subpoena power, and a spokesman for Sen. Udall said they would evaluate Mr. Azar’s response before taking further action.
HHS “is committed to transparency and accountability,” a spokesman said. “Congress has established rules regarding confidentiality of medical quality assurance records and IHS is working to uphold those legal obligations,” he said.
The IHS didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In their letter, the lawmakers — two of whom helped pass the law that the IHS says makes the report secret — said the agency’s legal position is wrong.
The IHS, which provides medical care for 2.6 million Native Americans, has struggled to address the scandal for more than a year, since a report by The Wall Street Journal and FRONTLINE revealed the agency had missed warning signs, tried to silence whistleblowers and moved the pedophile doctor from one agency hospital to another despite suspicions.
Last week, the health department permitted about a dozen congressional staffers to view a heavily redacted version of the report at the HHS offices, but the group was barred from taking any notes and limited to about two hours to review a 127-page document.
The report, compiled by IHS contractor Integritas Creative Solutions, “put it in the strongest terms that there were mismanagement failures, there was whistleblower retaliation and they missed numerous red flags,” said the person who reviewed the report.
The person recounted one incident described in the report where Weber inflated his own credentials to get permission to counsel at-risk youth, a ploy for him to be alone with them. Weber was allowed access to the young people even after someone else, whose name was redacted, flagged concerns about his lack of qualifications.
“I think a good reason why IHS and HHS didn’t want us to see the report is because it casts them in such a bad light,” the person said.
The IHS has said it cannot release the report because it considers the results a medical review, which it claims is confidential under a 2010 federal law. That decision has angered victims, their families, tribal officials and now some members of Congress.
In a statement Friday, the IHS defended its stance, saying that revealing the findings “will serve to dampen, not encourage” reports of misconduct. The agency said it is “working hard to change” a culture of fear and that to do so, it must keep criticisms by staff confidential. The agency said that is the purpose of the medical-review confidentiality law.
The agency also acknowledged law week that the law it says protects the report explicitly doesn’t apply to congressional oversight committees. An agency spokesman didn’t immediately comment on the lawmakers’ letter Wednesday.
“There is no legal basis for the IHS to withhold or limit access to its unredacted findings from review by the congressional committee of jurisdiction,” the letter from Democratic senators said.
A spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.), said the senator also plans on sending a letter pressing federal health officials for transparency around the report.
In February, Weber was sentenced to five lifetime prison terms after being convicted of sexually abusing six boys on two reservations. One of the convictions was upheld on appeal, and his lawyers said in a court filing that he would appeal the other.
The dispute over the report comes as the IHS has faced broader questions beyond the Weber case about its record of hiring doctors with troubled histories and of continuing to employ providers accused of misconduct.
Last week, a former IHS doctor, Arnold Scott Devous, was indicted in federal court in Montana for allegedly taking $45,500 in kickbacks to prescribe a diabetes medication not provided at IHS’s pharmacy while working at the agency’s Browning, Mont., hospital.
Dr. Devous previously gave up his medical license after being convicted in the 1980s for illegally prescribing large amounts of the painkiller Demerol and was sentenced to a year in prison, court and medical board records show. After regaining his license, he worked for IHS intermittently for two decades beginning in 1995, the records show. When tribal officials complained about his past, IHS moved him to other posts, agency and tribal records show. Dr. Devous faces up to five years in prison. Dr. Devous’s lawyer declined to comment on the case.
In February, another IHS doctor, Pedro Ibarra-Perocier, was indicted on eight counts of sexually abusing four different adult women he treated at the agency’s clinic on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. Mr. Ibarra-Perocier’s lawyer declined to comment.
This story has been updated.