Federal government to take over health care from Nooksack Tribe

Attorneys Ryan Dreveskracht, left and Gabriel Galanda confront Nooksack Tribal Police Chief Rory Gilliand at a roadblock to the tribal court house in Deming, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016.
Attorneys Ryan Dreveskracht, left and Gabriel Galanda confront Nooksack Tribal Police Chief Rory Gilliand at a roadblock to the tribal court house in Deming, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Nearly 300 people who have been kicked out of the Nooksack Indian Tribe will once again get health care when the federal government steps in at the end of April to provide those services.

In a March 27 letter, the Department of Health & Human Services notified tribal council Chairman Bob Kelly that it intended to “reassume” medical services – taking them over from the tribe – as of April 29, unless the tribe asked for a formal hearing.

In separate action, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development admonished the tribe in an April 4 letter against its most recent efforts to evict from tribal housing some of the people it had removed from Nooksack rolls in a process known as “disenrollment.”

The disenrollment controversy erupted in early 2013 after Kelly and a majority of other council members agreed that members of three families – Rabang, Rapada and Narte-Gladstone – didn’t have strong enough blood ties to the Nooksacks and had been incorrectly enrolled in the 2,000-member tribe in the 1980s.

Tribal membership entitles the Nooksacks to a range of benefits, among them hunting and fishing rights, health care and access to tribal housing.

The tribe announced Nov. 22, 2016, that it had removed 289 people from the membership rolls.

The effort has made for a complex series of legal battles that have lasted for years and involved a number of lawsuits and counter claims.

“What is paramount now is that our clients again receive life-depending health care and maintain their homes,” said Gabe Galanda, a Seattle attorney representing the ousted Nooksacks who have been fighting their disenrollment.

The two agencies said their decision followed that of the U.S. Department of Interior and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, which said the federal government won’t accept actions taken by the tribe after March 2016 because no election was held to replace four expiring Nooksack Tribal Council seats, meaning decisions were made without a quorum and, therefore, illegitimate.

The council’s actions won’t be recognized until the tribe holds a fair election under the rules of the tribe’s constitution, the BIA said.

It isn’t recognizing the election held on Jan. 21 because those who were disenrolled weren’t allowed to vote.

As a result, federal agencies have been saying they no longer have a government to government relationship with the tribe. That includes continuing to provide federal funds to help support tribally run health care, housing and social services.

“The United States has validated everything our clients have been experiencing and saying since March of 2016, most notably that they have not been disenrolled,” Galanda said.

Michelle Roberts, a spokeswoman for the affected group, said the most recent action by HUD and Health & Human Services gave them hope.

Roberts, Olive Oshiro, Alex Nicol-Mills, Norma Aldredge and Francisco Rabang all recently received eviction notices from the Nooksack Indian Housing Authority, which told them they needed to be out of their homes by April 23.

But HUD said in its letter that the eviction notices were invalid. “Therefore, all actions related to these terminations should cease,” the agency wrote in its letter.

“My thinking is that if they want to continue a relationship with HUD and continue to receive funding for future housing and maintenance,” Roberts said, “that they would comply.”

She also took heart from the letter from Health & Human Services, saying it showed that the council was “acting outside of their authority and those family members that needed these services now have someone to talk to and get help where needed.”

Kelly couldn’t be reached for comment.

In February, the tribe sued the federal government, claiming its decision interfered with the tribe’s right and ability to govern itself.

The tribe wants to get back nearly $13.7 million in state and federal funds it argued has been wrongfully withheld.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea