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Indian Health Service director resigns due to US presidential transition

Aztec High grad Weahkee had been acting director since June 2017

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Indian Health Service Director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee joined U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps members on a tour on May 27, 2020, of the alternate care site set up for COVID-19 patients at Northwest High School in Shiprock. Weahkee has submitted his resignation to the incoming Biden administration as part of the presidential transition process.

FARMINGTON — The head of the Indian Health Service will leave his position next week, as requested by the incoming Biden administration. 

Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee announced his resignation in a letter on Jan. 11 to tribal leaders and others.

In the letter, he stated that he was asked to leave by the incoming administration.

"I remain committed to the IHS mission, but in order to allow the incoming administration to appoint new leadership – as is standard in any presidential transition – I have been asked to tender my resignation effective Jan. 20," he wrote.

The agency delivers health care services to approximately 2.6 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives through hospitals, clinics and health stations operating in 37 states.

Weahkee, an Aztec High School graduate, was nominated by President Donald Trump in October 2019 but had been acting director since June 2017. The Senate confirmed his nomination in April 2020.

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The Biden transition team did not respond to questions about Weahkee's resignation on Jan. 15.

"It has been a sincere honor to have been entrusted to serve in this role. I believe the IHS is more capable now than ever before of fulfilling our vision of healthy communities and quality health care systems through strong partnerships and culturally responsive practices," he wrote.

Indian Health Service Director Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee is photographed on May 27, 2020, in Shiprock. He announced his resignation on Jan. 11.

Media coverage in recent years has centered on the chronic underfunding of the agency meant to provide quality services to Native Americans. In recent months there has been much scrutiny of the response to the coronavirus pandemic in Indian Country, which has seen infection rates over 3.5 times higher than non-Hispanic whites and higher hospitalization rates.

In November, the agency released its plan for distributing, allocating and administering the COVID-19 vaccine to facilities.

The Navajo Nation has had a good working relationship with Weahkee and the Navajo Area IHS, tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

"I appreciate everything that he and his staff have done to assist our people, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the limited resources that they have," Nez said.

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"With the incoming Biden-Harris administration, I am optimistic that we can build upon the partnership that we have with the IHS to increase funding, resources and personnel for our health care facilities. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified these needs and I look forward to working with the Biden-Harris team to improve our health care system," he added.

Weahkee, who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Zuni, visited last year the alternate care site in Shiprock that was set up to shelter patients recovering from COVID-19.

During the visit, he talked about additional funding provided to the IHS through federal coronavirus aid to help the response.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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