Council introduces new staffers, health cards at elders’ meeting

Southern Ute elders got a personal introduction to many of the tribe’s new high-level hires at a special meeting Wednesday, Sept. 11 at the Southern Ute Multi-purpose Facility.

First up was Michael Torres, the Tribal Health Department’s new chief medical officer, a man with decades of experience both in healthcare administration and in the U.S. military.

“I’m here to serve you,” he said. “There’s no reason I will not answer you, even on a weekend.”

Torres faced tough questions right away from some elders who said they’re dissatisfied with the state of the Southern Ute Health Center.

“A lot of our health problems are different and unique, and we do things differently,” James Jefferson said. “Hopefully you’ll understand and use us more to go the traditional ways that we have learned. Hopefully you don’t go the military way and dictate to us what we need to do.”

Torres responded that dignity and respect guide his decisions.

“I’m open to having you come to me and let me know what you see is wrong so that I can fix it for you,” he said.

Sanjean Burch, another tribal elder, expressed concern about long waits for appointments and prescription fulfillments. She said a young relative has had problems being seen at the clinic.

“We’re looking for help so we can get well, but not to be pushed away,” she said.

In response, Torres scheduled an appointment on the spot for the relative to be seen the next day.

Next was Ray Coriz, the tribe’s new chief of police, who comes from the Santo Domingo and Isleta pueblos of New Mexico. Coriz said his first emphasis is community policing.

“It’s getting to know everybody, working for the people,” he said. “This isn’t a city police department. This is a tribal police department in Indian Country.”

Coriz said he will also push transparency and accountability in the department. He’s already set several changes in motion, including staggering officers’ lunches to optimize efficiency, increasing patrols on county roads, and beginning the process of having Southern Ute dispatch answer 911 calls from any number with a 563 prefix.

Other introductions included tribal member Chantel Cloud, the tribe’s new chief judge, and new Tribal Services Director Loren Sekayumptewa.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council also invited several staffers to deliver updates on key elders’ services. Brian Zink, the tribe’s Finance Department director, said the elders’ distribution will see an increase in the next fiscal year. Specifics have been mailed to tribal elders, Zink said.

Executive Officer Amy Barry then gave an update on the elders’ travel policy. A year ago, Barry said, her office met with elders to discuss ways to handle the swelling travel budget, which at that point imposed no limits on the number of trips an elder could take.

In response, the tribe has piloted over the past year a program that places a cap of three trips per elder per year. Barry reported that the result has been a budget overage of roughly the same amount, but many more elders have benefited from the policy, rather than just a few making frequent trips.

Some elders, including Byron Frost and Ray Frost, complained that the tribe did not involve elders enough in developing the new policy. Ray Frost called for the development of an elders’ advocacy committee to inform such decisions.

By contrast, Marge Barry said she was grateful to have the benefit at all.

“I appreciate having a program,” she said. “If there’s controls on them, well, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

During a Tribal Health Department update, Director Kaylor Shemberger said his staff has been working hard to implement promised improvements. Within 90 days, the department will bring a modular building onto the tribal campus and transfer dental and optical programs there.

That will add approximately 4,700 square feet of space – enough to increase the number of dental chairs from three to five and to introduce a hygiene program, Shemberger said.

“This is about a 50-percent increase in our total space allocated for health care,” he said. “We will be able to expand the services, taking care of more adults and more children.”

Once the modular is installed, Shemberger said, the four rooms in the clinic vacated in the move will be renovated and turned into exam rooms, increasing the number from five to nine. That will take place approximately 60 days after the modular opens, he said.

Other future plans call for the implementation of digital radiology and expanded hours, he said.

Scott McIntyre of Rural Healthcare Connections then presented the basics of the tribe’s forthcoming Tribal Member Health Benefit Program. Tribal members will receive a benefit card by Tuesday, Oct. 1 that they will be able to use to access health care via a national network of providers, he said.

“Access is key,” he said. “All members should have access to health services that they need, whether it be here … [or] anywhere off the reservation.”

For more information on how the card will work, check out some frequently asked questions below or visit www.sudrum.com for a full list of answers.

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