- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - The two most senior members of South Dakota’s congressional delegation are questioning the location of a proposed counseling center in the wake of a string of suicides among Indian communities around the state.

U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem raised their concerns Thursday in a letter to Health Secretary Sylvia Burwell, asking why the planned intensive behavioral health unit was set to be built in Rapid City, dozens of miles away from the people living on western South Dakota reservations that the center is supposed to help.

The Indian Health Service, which is responsible for providing federal health services to American Indians, intends to spend nearly $2 million to build the intensive behavioral health unit to help individuals contemplating suicide.

“While we are encouraged by this news, we are concerned about the agency’s plans, particularly its decision to place the new facility at the Rapid City Service Unit,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter that requests a series of answers by Dec. 1. “… We worry that, by placing the facility so far from the reservations, IHS may not fully grasp the urgent nature of this crisis,” the letter continues.

The proposed center comes as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation - home to about 35,000 people - continues to grapple with a wave of suicides. Fifteen people have killed themselves there since December. The youngest to die was 12 and the oldest 24.

A trip to Rapid City can be longer than 170 miles from some communities on the reservation, and not all tribal members - almost half of whom live below the federal poverty line - have a way to get to there.

“Given the limited resources our tribal members often have for transportation, will IHS be responsible to transport patients to the facility in Rapid City, and back to their homes?” the lawmakers wrote. They also asked for details about how HIS has responded to the increase in suicides, including specific examples of how the agency has ensured that those in need of assistance received it.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday confirmed it received the letter and plans to respond to the congressional correspondence.

“IHS is committed to working with the Tribe to address this heart-breaking problem,” the agency said in a statement. IHS said it “has increased its capacity to treat behavioral health issues on Pine Ridge Reservation” and is working with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, other agencies and national experts “to provide a comprehensive public health response.”

Thune and Noem traveled to Pine Ridge in October and met with students, law enforcement, tribal leaders and others.

“(Young people) told me stories about friends and loved ones who had taken their own lives - and some explained they had tried to do the same,” Noem said in a statement. “I recognize there are no words to wipe away the pain these kids have had to experience, but I’m committed to working with these young people and tribal leaders to pave a more hopeful future for them.”

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Regina Garcia Cano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/reginagarciakNO


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