By Darren Thompson
Tahlequah, Okla.—The nation’s most populous federally recognized tribe also boasts the largest, by square footage, and most comprehensive health center operated by any tribe in Indian Country. The Cherokee Nation Health Services (CNHS) is the largest tribally run health care system in the United States. He opened the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center, a four-story, 469,000 square foot outpatient health facility, on the campus of the WW Hastings Hospital campus in Tahlequah in October 2019.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the health center has not reached full capacity since it opened, said executive director of health services, Dr. R. Stephen Jones. The pandemic has caused many health care organizations to provide health care to patients through telehealth, including the Cherokee Nation. However, the telehealth challenge for Cherokee Nation is a patient’s ability to access a broadband connection in a rural part of eastern Oklahoma.
“We are moving to providing more in-person services,” Dr. R. Stephen Jones told Native News Online. “More and more people feel safer in our facilities over the past three months, but we are still working on a hybrid model of telehealth or telehealth.”
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In addition to the state-of-the-art Tahlequah Ambulatory Care Center, the Cherokee Nation currently has four other expansion projects at other area outpatient clinics in Vinita, Nowata, Muskogee and Ochelata. The Cherokee Nation has invested over $12 million in these places.
“The four sites expand patient access to care,” Jones said of each expansion project.
The tribe has more than $300 million in healthcare infrastructure and plans to open a new, six-story, 375,000-square-foot, $400 million hospital in November 2022 to replace the aging WW Hastings Hospital. 40 years old, which was built in the 1980s to serve 60,000 patients a year. The CNHS reported that in recent years the hospital served more than 500,000 patients a year.
“One of the most important things we’re doing right now for the Cherokee Nation is health care,” Cherokee Nation Chief Chief Chuck Hoskins, Jr. said in an interview with Native News Online. “My predecessor did an amazing job improving our health care clinics and we are trying to fill the gaps to meet the needs of our community.
Currently, the hospital is in the drawing stage, where each department in the hospital provides information on the design and functionality of the facility. When completed, the hospital will be linked by air bridge to the Cherokee Nation Ambulatory Health Center and the two facilities will have direct access to each other. When complete, the hospital will be fully owned and operated by the Cherokee Nation.
The growing healthcare campus is welcoming, well-maintained, visibly state-of-the-art, and features the first medical school on tribal lands in history. Through a partnership with Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, the Cherokee Nation has established the nation’s first tribal-affiliated college of medicine. It opened with an inaugural class of 54 in August 2020 with 20% of its Native American opening class.
The goal of the Cherokee Nation Health Department is to care for people “from the cradle to the grave” – from the moment citizens are born until they die. Unlike private health systems, the CNHS does not have to sell services to its patients and can focus more on the quality of care.
“We will be as good as we can be with the resources provided to us,” Jones said of how the organization delivers healthcare. “We don’t have to worry about our doctors selling services, they can treat people the way they’ve been trained to treat them and what their needs are.”
“We can be as good as or even better than any other healthcare system in the country,” Dr Jones said of the CNHS.
However, the Cherokee Nation’s health services do not serve the public. Some services are only provided to members of the Cherokee Nation, but many other services such as routine checkups are available to any member or beneficiary of a federally recognized tribe.
The Cherokee Nation based in Tahlequah has 410 402 Tribal members around the world. Tribe enrollment has increased since late 2021 and is expected to continue to rise largely due to the June 1 deadline set by Hoskins to disperse American Rescue Plan Act funding of $2,000 per member. . This is the first time the tribe has attempted a payout to all of its members.
“Our population has grown rapidly and has challenged our system compared to what we are used to dealing with,” Senior Chief Chuck Hoskins, Jr. told Native News Online. “A lot of people apply to be Cherokee.”
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The Native News Health Desk is made possible by a generous grant from the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation as well as sponsorship support from RxDestroyer, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and the National Indian Health Board. This grant and sponsorship support has no effect on editorial consideration in Native News Online.