U.S. Senator Mark Begich applauded Tuesday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of Native American and Alaska Native tribes in the Salazar, Secretary of the Interior v. Ramah Navajo Chapter case.
The decision holds the government liable for failing to pay full contract support costs to tribes which run education and law enforcement services under contracts with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The decision means a similar rule will be issued next week instructing the Indian Health Service (IHS) to pay full contract support costs and uphold similar damage claims for past contract underpayments.
In Alaska, tribal entities and large regional tribal non-profits contract with the government to deliver services, such as operating hospitals and clinics, providing welfare assistance, housing programs and various other activities-all of which the federal government would otherwise be running.
Over many years, the federal government has underfunded the contract support costs it has owed these tribal contractors, leaving Alaska tribes and tribal health entities covering the gap. Senator Begich led a bipartisan group of senators to push the Obama administration to fully fund contract support costs (attached letter dated Sept 29, 2011). Over the last two years, contract support funding has increased by $126 million but still falls $80 million short.
"The Court has made it clear -- we must honor our contracts with tribes," Begich said. "The Obama Administration and Congress need to fully fund contract support costs now instead of inviting another wave of lawsuits."
Under the Court's ruling, if Congress does not appropriate full funding, tribal contractors can sue the IHS or BIA for the underpayment just like any other government contractor. Separate from this ruling, Senator Begich in April introduced the Day in Court Act to ensure that these specific past-due claims of IHS underpayments, are fully considered by the courts, and damages awarded to the extent warranted. The bill, S. 2389, has bipartisan support, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski. A companion bill was introduced by Congressman Don Young.
In Alaska, tribal health providers have built a world-class network of care, providing health care and other services to Alaska Natives while providing thousands of jobs across the State. This year alone, three new tribal health facilities will open in Fairbanks, Nome, and Wasilla. Another facility is online to begin construction in Kenai. All these facilities are operated under contracts with IHS. The new ruling will assure that IHS fully honors those contracts in the future.