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The Pueblo of Acoma has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services over the closure of emergency services and in-patient care at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna hospital.
IHS first announced the changes in November. After briefly resuming emergency care, the agency now plans to close those services at the facility on Feb. 1. The hospital would essentially become a daytime urgent care clinic serving a population of about 9,000 in Acoma and Laguna pueblos and the satellite Navajo community of To’hajillee.
The closure “could not have come at a worse time,” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said.
“The toll on the daily lives, the health and welfare of my people has been overwhelming,” Vallo told reporters Friday.
Vallo recalled an elder tribal member who recently died after having a heart attack. The ACL hospital was not open for emergency care at the time.
EMS staff in a nearby community did not arrive in time to transport the patient, who had also tested positive for COVID-19, to an Albuquerque hospital an hour’s drive away.
The emergency injunction filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asks that a federal court require IHS to maintain full hospital service.
An IHS spokesperson did not immediately respond to Journal questions Friday.
Gregory Smith, a Washington, D.C., lawyer representing Acoma Pueblo, said IHS is violating a law that requires the agency to notify Congress of hospital closures a year in advance, and provide an evaluation of the closure’s impacts.
“This is a life or death matter,” Smith said.
In meetings and legal briefings, IHS has cited an exception allowing for temporary closures and an eventual permanent closure if the agency can’t fund safe hospital services.
A Jan. 5 post on the ACL hospital’s Facebook page notes that the emergency department reopened for 24/7 operations at the start of the new year.
“However,” the post said, “there remains a possibility that the IHS may have to temporarily discontinue Emergency Room services at ACL Service Unit for medical, environmental, or safety reasons after January 31, 2021.”
The changes also affect women’s health care, optometry and pediatrics.
In New Mexico, Native American communities have been some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“IHS is saying we have to do triage with hospitals, but what that really means is we have to do triage with Native communities, and that can’t be acceptable,” Smith said. “The larger question really goes to convincing Congress that they’ve chronically fallen short on the funding of the Indian Health Service.”
Acoma’s legal team briefed the previous presidential administration about the issue, and have also briefed the Biden transition team.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wrote a letter to President Joe Biden earlier this week, encouraging the administration to “rebuild trust” by keeping the hospital open.
“This Administration has the opportunity and, indeed, the responsibility to cure the historical institutional racism that has created disparities in access to quality health care for American Indians,” Lujan Grisham wrote in a Jan. 24 letter.
Vallo said he is hopeful that the Biden administration will intervene to prevent the closure and the need for a long legal battle.
Acoma leadership met several times last year with IHS officials. But Vallo said the officials did not indicate any intention to keep the emergency services.