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It’s a tiny hospital in the middle of what seems like nowhere, but to the tribal communities it served, it was a lifeline. A lifeline that was cut short with no notice by Indian Health Services, the federal agency who oversees the hospital. The Acoma-Cañoncito-Laguna (ACL) Hospital was given a 30-day notice of closure in October, and no backup plan was advanced for patients who might need emergency care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, seemingly by intervention from Gov. Lujan Grisham, Rep. Deb Haaland and a loud community outcry, IHS delivered a notice that the hospital’s ER services would remain open for 30 days until the end of January with a skeleton staff.
Those 30 days are almost up, and no communication has been received about a plan of action for the future, or if the hospital will shut down for good. Acoma Pueblo officials claim the the hospital closure will cause irreparable harm and say they have no choice but to sue the federal agency responsible for it. Acoma Pueblo officials say an Acoma patient who tested positive for COVID-19 passed away before he could be transported to another hospital. EMS staff from a neighboring community 20 miles away scrambled to respond to a call to transport the Acoma resident. That response came too late. Officials say the death is directly traceable to the adverse impact caused by the IHS decision to shut down inpatient care and emergency services at ACL Hospital last November. They say COVID-19 calls and other emergencies that would have been handled by hospital staff now require EMS staff and patients to drive an hour or more for emergency care in Albuquerque.
“This is such a devastating example of poor judgment by the agency responsible for providing healthcare and emergency services to tribal communities. The family [of the deceased patient] is angry and still in disbelief that this could have happened when a hospital was located only minutes away from their home,” said Acoma Governor Brian Vallo. “The toll of my community has been overwhelming. We had no choice except to file suit in Federal Court.”
The lawsuit names the Health & Human Services Department and accuses the agency of failing to abide by federal law as well as refusing to take advantage of existing funding in the millions of dollars available under the Federal CARES Act. Instead, IHS has chosen to finalize its plan to reduce the hospital to an urgent care unit only with limited operating hours.
“This would be concerning during ‘normal’ times but is absolutely devastating during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted American Indians,” wrote Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in a Jan. 24 letter to President Joe Biden on behalf of the Pueblo of Acoma. “I implore your administration to reverse the decision to close this vital hospital. … The administration has the opportunity to cure the historical institutional racism that has created disparities in access to quality healthcare.”
In addition to reducing the hospital to an urgent care unit with no in-patient services, pueblo officials claim IHS has funds available to keep ACL hospital open during both the pandemic, but has failed to use $790 million in federal funds available. The tribe alleges there was no meaningful consultation with the tribes served by the hospital about next steps in replacing ACL services.
The Pueblo of Acoma is asking a federal court to order the IHS to maintain current levels of service until a year after notice is given to Congress and declare the agency’s decision to close ACL hospital a violation of federal law.
On Friday, Chief Judge Beryl Howell for the District of Columbia granted the Pueblo’s request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) which forces the Indian Health Services to maintain current services for at least two weeks until a hearing on a preliminary injunction.