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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Secretary Tom Price, meet Indian Country.

As part of a three-day visit to Oklahoma, Price, the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Trump administration, met with officials from the Cherokee and Pawnee nations, along with representatives for the cabinet’s tribal advisory council.

Along with exposure to traditional Cherokee and Pawnee songs and dances, Price was given a candid view of one of the bigger problems facing tribal communities: opioid abuse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of opioid abuse-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives nationwide has increased almost four-fold since 2009.

Data collected by Indian Health Services indicates that the rate of drug-related deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives is almost double that of the general population, with up to 130 overdose fatalities per day in 2014 alone.

 “Part of the challenge we have is that in certain areas, it’s not viewed as a disease,” Price said. “This is the disease of addiction. If it’s not viewed as a disease, we won’t get to the right solution.”

Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation filed a lawsuit in tribal court against Wal-Mart, Walgreens, CVS Health and three of the country’s largest pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid crisis. That lawsuit is still pending.

“The Cherokee Nation is saturated,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “In our Indian Child Welfare office, about 40 percent of our cases involve families torn apart by opioids. We have babies being born in the hospital on a monthly basis having to be life-flighted to Tulsa…because they were born with these powerful drugs in their system”

On Monday, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration announced that Cherokee and Choctaw nations were one of 10 governments nationwide to receive grant funding for first responder training on how administer Naloxone, a synthetic drug that blocks the nervous system’s opiate receptors. It can reverse an overdose if administered in time, either by an injection into muscle tissue or by inhaling it.

“Getting overdose reversing drugs, including Naloxone and Narcan … in as many places as possible is an absolute priority,” Price said. “It’s not just resources that are necessary, it’s education as well. We’ve got a program to educate our first responders on how to use those drugs.”

In addition to giving Secretary Price an up close and personal view of IHS and tribally-run health care facilities, the visit was also an opportunity for officials with the Cherokee Nation and other nations to make their budgetary concerns known.

Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation broke ground on a $200 million expansion project at W.W. Hastings Hospital through the largest joint venture agreement in Indian Health Services’ history.

The agreement calls for the tribe to finance the construction and installation of necessary equipment and in exchange, the federal government will fund up to 85 percent of the staffing and operating costs for at least 20 years, projected at roughly $80 million per year.

However, the 2018 budget proposed by the Trump administration calls for IHS to take a 6 percent cut, prompting concerns over whether the agreement will actually be honored.

“We’re in the middle of a joint venture,” Baker said. “We want to be sure that 2019’s budget includes that joint venture funding. The last thing we want is to not get that funding so that we’ve got this 469,000 square foot building sitting empty that we can’t open.”

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