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Anna Whiting-Sorrell joins Tribal Health and Human Services Department

By B.L. Azure
THHS PIO

Anna Whiting-Sorrell is the new THHS Director of Operations, Planning and Policy. (B.L. Azure, photo) Anna Whiting-Sorrell is the new THHS Director of Operations, Planning and Policy. (B.L. Azure, photo)

ST. IGNATIUS — Every journey starts with leaving home and in some cases it ends when the sojourner returns home. For Indian people, coming home is common because home has a deeper intrinsic hold on the soul based on family, clan, tribe, culture and homeland. The result is a spiritual magnetism that continues to tug on the heartstrings no matter where an Indian person might be. That tug finally got to Anna Whiting-Sorrell.

Whiting-Sorrell has been hired to fill the recently created position of Tribal Health and Human Services Director of Operations, Planning and Policy. Whiting-Sorrell has a Bachelors degree in Political Science and Education and a Masters degree in Public Administration.

“The position was created to assist me and the (Confederated Salish and Kootenai) Tribes in doing strategic planning to implement all options available for Indian people under the Affordable Care Act,” said Tribal Health Director Kevin Howlett, adding that Sorrell-Whiting would also assist in THHS’s intention of assuming the functions of the Indian Health Service’s Contract Health Services; assist in development of policies and procedures related to improving access for eligible beneficiaries to health care facilities and services; and, assist in analyzing in detail the financial impact of various third-party medical programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Veterans Affairs as well as the financial impact of health care options available for tribal members under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The 56-year-old Whiting-Sorrell said it is time for her to complete the circle and return home after a decade away. Whiting-Sorrell’s decade long journey started when she left the administrative staff of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in 2004 to become the Native American Outreach Coordinator for then Democrat Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential bid. Kerry now serves as Secretary of State in President Barack Obama’s administration.

“I haven’t been home since I left to work on Sen. Kerry’s presidential campaign,” Whiting-Sorrell said. “But regardless of where I worked my home has always been here, where my family is. It is a part of who I am.”

After the 2004 elections Anna joined the administration of Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer where she served four years on his transition team. When Schweitzer was reelected in 2008, Anna accepted his offer to head up the Montana Department of Health and Human Services where she remained until the 2012 election of Democrat Governor Steve Bullock.

“When Steve was elected I knew I was done working for the state,” she said, adding that she understood the political lay of the land. “I believe that every administration should pick its staff.”

Whiting-Sorrell then cast her eyes eastward from Helena towards Billings and the Indian Health Service. In January 2013 Whiting-Sorrell was tabbed to be the Director of the Billings Area Office of the Indian Health Service where she remained until accepting the Tribal Health position.

“I believed the best way to improve health care for Indian people is for the tribes, the state and feds to work together,” she said, adding she originally planned to serve five years at IHS but she soon came to realize there was a black hole of problems with the federal agency that in all likelihood will take longer than five years to resolve. “The logical step IHS should take is to commit to work with the various governments to improve health care for Indians.”

That is imperative for tribal people because IHS is a payer of last resort and is chronically under-budgeted. And because American Indians are also state and federal citizens they have options to participate in state programs such as Health Montana Kids and state administered Medicaid funds. However, the Republican control of the State Legislature 2013 voted not to participate in the Medicaid expansion. The Affordable Care Act is also a part of the puzzle and under it American Indians now have access to a wider array of health care services that heretofore were unavailable in Indian Country.

“There are unique opportunities available to Indian tribes in the Affordable Care Act. The tribes are in the driver’s seat and it’s up to the individual tribes on how to implement it (ACA) in Indian Country,” Whiting-Sorrell said, adding that there is a steep learning curve in Indian Country when it comes to the Affordable Care Act and its effects on health care provisions for Indian people. “The Affordable Care Act and the Indian Health Care Act are huge shifts in the way health care is delivered to Indian people but there is still little understanding of them in Indian Country. There are numerous options that apply only to Indian people that will greatly enhance the health care they receive. I am looking forward to working with Tribal Health in its effort to get the best possible health care coverage.”

It’s all a very complicated issue but Whiting-Sorrell brings a lot of knowledge and experience in health care delivery.

“Anna brings a tremendous amount of knowledge about state and Indian Health Service programs. She will identify the opportunities that will enable us to access more of the programs available in Montana and IHS,” Howlett said. “I am pleased to have here as a part of the Tribal Health management structure and she is pleased to be home. Anna is a quality addition to the Tribal Health staff.”

“Health care is a business in this country. I hope I can help improve the delivery of health care by making it more responsive to the people we are here to serve,” Whiting-Sorrell said. “I want to make sure our customers want to come back to us.”

On coming back to the Flathead Indian Reservation, Whiting-Sorrell said. “My family has made a tremendous sacrifice over the last decade so I could go and do the work I did. This journey home seems so right because in the end the most important things are family and home.”

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