Continuous Conversations Lead to Meaningful Relationships and Results

Director of MDHHS Visit Focuses on Behavioral Health and Social Services

“In state government, because we fund a program, people might think that we have all the answers, but we’re really trying to flip that; so we in government can ask the right questions and let those experts who are doing the work answer these questions… but that’s going to take us a little while because it’s a big shift,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Elizabeth Hertel to NHBP leaders and DHHS staff during a half-day tour of the Pine Creek Indian Reservation on Aug. 11. The tour specifically focused on the NHBP’s Health and Human Services Department’s needs, led by NHBP HHSD Director Roz Johnston, who received the IHS Director’s Award in 2020 for her “visionary work” during the pandemic. 

Asking detailed questions of NHBP leaders during the visit, Hertel and her staff made it evident that their in-person presence that day was only a small part of extensive, continuous conversations between the two organizations. Appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in January 2021, Hertel’s duties as Director are to oversee the State of Michigan’s health department, which provides public assistance, child and family welfare services, and oversees health policy and management, including mental health and substance abuse services for the state of Michigan and its residents, according to mdhhs.gov.

“What do you need from us?” MDHHS staff asked more than once of the NHBP HHSD staff, citing specific scenarios in which the two health departments work closely together. 

Hertel was accompanied by several members of her staff, including MDHHS Tribal Liaison Officer Lorna Elliott-Egan, State Manager for ICWA Compliance and Race Equity Jason Cross, and Senior Communications Representative Kirsten Simmons. They walked through the NHBP Health Facility at Pine Creek, escorted by Johnston, NHBP Social Services Director Meg Fairchild, CEO Barry Skutt and Tribal Council Chairperson Jamie Stuck.

Tribal Council Secretary Nancy Smit initiated a collegial mood with a heartfelt invocation from Tribal Council, who greeted and thanked the visitors for coming, and by a powerful Song from Culture Department Manager Fred Jacko, Jr.

Much of the lively yet friendly conversation focused on finding resolutions to specific issues that the Health and Human Services team faces daily at NHBP, especially regarding behavioral health and social services.

“The same amount of resources that flowed through the government for COVID-19 resources, tracing and supplies, that same amount should be flowing through for behavioral health resources, nationwide,” said Johnston to the state health department. “We saw this need for behavioral health within the first nine months of the pandemic, so NHBP began scaling up our services, bringing on more staff. Even with all the planning and hiring, today, we still have our Tribal citizens on wait lists for behavioral health services.”

Also brought to the attention of Hertel was the lack of inpatient services for those experiencing mental health crises and a plea for coverage of “90 days or more of inpatient care, which is what the research suggests, rather than only 14 days of inpatient care for mental health needs,” said Johnston.

Other matters of concern discussed were the lack of culturally sensitive rehabilitation programs, the ongoing opioid crisis, the high cost of drugs and preventative care, as well as coordination of care and challenging data quality and management and access to this data across the different counties, health departments and agencies throughout the state.

To better learn the layout of The Reservation, Hertel and MDHHS staff took a bus tour of The Reservation, escorted by Environmental Director John Rodwan and Tribal Preservation Officer and NHBP Tribal Member Doug Taylor, accompanied by Stuck.

During natural and spontaneous conversations, Stuck and Hertel discussed the numerous benefits of HeadStart programs in the state, as well as the Native American Heritage Fund that has helped more than 20 school systems, as well as several cities, update and rebrand outdated monikers, imagery and architecture into more culturally appropriate branding and images.

Together, the group walked the banks of Pine Creek where Mnomen {Wild Rice} was growing and visited the Pow Wow grounds to learn about the Sacred Fire. The group visited not only the history and current status of the NHBP Tribe and The Reservation but also touched on its plans for preservation, programs and growth. 

“Right now, we’re in a planning year, working with our Revenue Allocation Plan, Tribal citizens, executive team and other stakeholders, so we’re focused on how we move forward over the next five years,” Stuck said. “We’re working to carry us forward from 2023 to 2027, and because our main priorities are the promotion of health and health organization, we already have pinpointed many different goals and objectives from our Tribal membership surveys. We intend to work and partner with the MDHHS to achieve many of those goals and objectives.

“Look for more to come from NHBP on our plans in the area of health,” Stuck said to Hertel and her staff. 

During the summer of 2022, Hertel and her staff toured several of the 12 federally recognized Tribes throughout Michigan, including NHBP. During these tours, the team learned firsthand from the different Tribes’ shared and differing needs, as well as areas where MDHHS can continue to improve the conversations and relationships to boost and enhance the health of sovereign Nations all over Michigan.

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