Shutdown puts strain on some Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations

Jan 22, 2019

Ninilchik Traditional Council's transit building.
Credit DAYSHA EATON/KBBI

The partial federal shutdown is putting strain on some Alaska Native tribes and tribal organizations. Some are dipping into reserves in order to pay for services that the federal government usually covers.

Federally recognized tribes in Alaska are missing some payments from the federal government during the partial shutdown.

Tribes are eligible for funding through federal agencies either directly or through contracts, grants or other agreements.

The Indian Health Service or IHS funds hospitals and various clinics throughout Alaska. The agency isn’t giving out any funding until the government passes an appropriation.

Tribes such as the Ninilchik Traditional Council on the Kenai Peninsula have missed IHS payments. Ivan Encelewski is executive director of the tribe.

“We're definitely owed money from the Indian Health Services for a contract and that is one of the ones that is affected by the shutdown,” he said.

Most of the tribe’s operations are healthcare related. The tribe runs a clinic, behavioral health service programs and a health and wellness club, among other services. Encelewski says the tribe is still able to bill insurances including Medicare and Medicaid, but it still needs to use its own money to fill in gaps in funding. He said last week that money won’t last for long.  

“I would estimate around another month,” he said.

At that point, they will need to decide which services to cut and possibly furlough employees.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which provides medical care and telehealth services statewide, declined to say whether it missed a payment from IHS. Spokesperson Shirley Young said it’s operating normally.  

“The Alaska Native Medical Center, ANMC, which is ANTHC largest division is open and providing all usual services during the shutdown,” she said. “We have 25 specialty clinics and they're all operating as normal.”

Still, the shutdown is having an impact.

“So of ANTHC approximately 3,000 employees, about 180 of them are federal employees,” she said.

Those employees were working without pay, but the consortium decided a little over a week ago that it will use their own funds to compensate them. The nonprofit declined to say how long it could afford to pay those employees’ salaries.

It’s not just the tribal health system that may struggling during the shutdown. Tribes such as the small community of Beaver Village are missing out on funding for other services.

The village is located north of Fairbanks, and it’s Chief, Rhonda Pitka, says the tribe is unable to access grant funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The people that would approve it aren’t at work,” she said.

She said the tribe relies on those funds for critical services such as fuel deliveries, electricity and internet.

“We've been having to put off paying bills for a little bit,” she said. “Talk with our creditors, talk with the people that we owe money to, to make sure that we can still get fuel deliveries and just the basics.”

The tribe also relies on federal money to fund environmental programs, general tribal operations and scholarships for its higher education students. Pitka said they won’t be able to administer those scholarships during the shutdown.

Pitka said the tribe has roughly a month left, if that, before it will run out of reserves.

“Right now, there's a lot of worry, a lot of concern,” she said. “The needs are large and we don't have a large amount of money.”

Just how long Beaver Village and others may have to go without federal funding is unclear. The U.S. Senate is due to vote on competing bills aimed at ending the shutdown this week, but stark disagreements between Democrats and Republicans may sink those bills’ chances of passing.