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Questions Could Derail Confirmation of Trump’s Indian Health Nominee

Robert Weaver was already under scrutiny over his qualifications

Participants in a “Rock Your Mocs” fun walk/run in Shiprock, New Mexico, sponsored by the local Indian Health Service facility. (Courtesy Indian Health Service/Facebook)
Participants in a “Rock Your Mocs” fun walk/run in Shiprock, New Mexico, sponsored by the local Indian Health Service facility. (Courtesy Indian Health Service/Facebook)

President Donald Trump’s nominee to oversee health care services for two million Native Americans — who already faces questions about whether he is qualified — failed to disclose donations to the Trump campaign in his official Senate questionnaire, Roll Call has learned.

Robert Weaver, a health insurance salesman and consultant who was nominated in October to lead the $6.1-billion Indian Health Service, has been touted by the administration as “a staunch advocate of innovative programs to improve Native American health.” But some lawmakers are concerned that the administration inflated his qualifications. The questions surrounding his nomination raise the possibility that he might not have the votes to win confirmation.

Weaver’s failure to disclose the contributions could contribute to lawmakers’ doubts. According to the Federal Election Commission, he made seven $500 contributions to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, the president’s 2020 re-election campaign organization. The contributions occurred monthly between March 2017, around the time that Weaver first discussed the IHS position with a member of Congress, and September 2017, just a few weeks before the White House formally nominated him.

But in Weaver’s official questionnaire for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is evaluating his nomination, he only disclosed the March 2017 contribution, according to Jennifer Talhelm, a spokeswoman for Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the committee’s top Democrat.

Weaver denied making the subsequent contributions, Talhelm said, even though the FEC records matched his name, addresses and the name of his company, RWI Benefits.

While Weaver told Udall that someone else may have contributed in his name without his knowledge, a Health and Human Services Department spokesperson told Roll Call, “It is our understanding that this was an administrative error and Mr. Weaver is in the process of submitting an addendum to his questionnaire.”

Overstated experience

When Weaver was nominated, the White House cited his “nearly two decades of experience in hospital, mental health administration, and entrepreneurship.” Weaver spent the last 12 years in the insurance business helping Indian tribes provide health coverage for their members. But The Wall Street Journal first reported last week that his experience in hospitals may have been overstated.

An HHS spokesperson responded to Journal article by calling suggestions that Weaver is unqualified “nothing but an attempt at pure character assassination.”

Weaver’s résumé said he worked at St. John’s Hospital in Joplin, Missouri, from 1997 to 2006. It said he worked in “various hospital administration positions, including managing all accounts receivable, budgets, patient access and physician recruitment.”

The administration provided a letter from Dottie Bringle, a former nurse and executive at St. John’s who said she supervised Weaver and that he had great leadership, organizational and problem-solving skills.

“When Mr. Weaver started at our facility he was a young man who was only a year out of high school. He rapidly became a person others respected and sought out for advice and help dealing with operational issues within the facility,” she said, according to the administration.

In an email, Talhelm said that when Udall asked for a list of his titles at the hospital, Weaver said he couldn’t recall specifics, but provided a list of vague “best guesses” that included a position that earned him the nickname “bed control Rob.”

“The last confirmed director was a physician who had worked in hospitals at a high level,” Udall told Roll Call. “He has no training as a physician. He doesn’t seem to have any broad management and supervisory experience. And so that’s just very problematic.”

Some Republicans on the Indian Affairs Committee share Udall’s concerns. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that given the agency’s chronic problems with funding, staffing and management, she had a lot of questions after meeting with Weaver.

“His background, quite honestly, doesn’t kind of line up with what you might anticipate one would put there,” said Murkowski, who also oversees the Indian Health Service’s funding on the Appropriations Committee. “But having said that, you don’t hold that against him, you want to find out about him.”

No one has formally opposed Weaver’s nomination. Indian Affairs Chairman John Hoeven has not yet scheduled a hearing. A spokeswoman for the North Dakota Republican, Kami Capener, said in an email that the committee would look into the questions surrounding Weaver.

“Our committee is committed to addressing longstanding issues at the Indian Health Service and improving the delivery of quality health care in tribal communities. That means ensuring the next IHS director is qualified to restore meaningful oversight and accountability at the agency,” she said.

‘Try something different’

Other Republicans view Weaver’s background as a boon instead of a barrier, and note that a background in medicine and hospital administration hasn’t historically been a guarantee of success running the IHS.

“I think you’ve got to get somebody in there who has a business background and who is focused on results and reform,” said South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds, who met with Weaver in November. “Clearly we’ve had people that have run hospitals before, and that has not changed IHS. So we need to try something different.”

Given Trump’s emphasis on applying business skills to government work, Weaver’s business and complaints about IHS may have attracted the administration’s attention. Weaver, a member of Oklahoma’s Quapaw tribe, met in February 2017 with his member of Congress, Republican Rep. Markwayne Mullin.

“He was pointing out to me the issues that he has with Indian health services. That’s when I asked him, ‘Hey, have you thought about doing the position yourself?’” Mullin told Roll Call. According to Mullin, Weaver laughed him off, but Mullin urged him to think about it. A month later, Weaver said he would be interested. Mullin, who chairs an official House task force on the Indian Health Service, said he suggested Weaver to the administration.

Mullin thinks Weaver’s business experience and desire to fix the IHS are more important than experience as a physician or running hospital systems. “The IHS system has been a mess. The funding is low. There’s no standing operating procedures. There’s a lot of areas that can be improved on. I feel like he understands those and can get them improved,” Mullin said.

Weaver does not have an extensive political background, and before 2017, two of his political contributions were to Democrats.

But a white paper he published in January 2017 may have also caught the administration’s eye. In the paper, he discusses provisions in the 2010 health care law that benefited Native Americans and, he argued, needed protecting.

However, he opened the paper by calling President Barack Obama’s signature law a “failed effort” that did not provide coverage to the uninsured, was “not affordable” and had out-of-pocket maximums that made “access to healthcare unattainable.”

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