Cabinet official visits Dinétah

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

SAWMILL, Ariz., July 18, 2013

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TOP: Richard Begay of Sawmill, Ariz., gets a visit from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, seated, and Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, right, on July 11. (Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

SECOND FROM TOP: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius greets Richard Begay and his family members at his home in Sawmill on July 11.

THIRD FROM TOP: U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius speaks while visiting with Richard Begay at his home on July 11 in Sawmill. (Times photos – Ravonelle Yazzie)

A s she exited his single-wide trailer, Richard Begay had one last request of the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.

"Please don't forget about me," he said.

Kathleen Sebelius stopped. Then said she "would be back in touch."

The July 11 visit, arranged by the Navajo Nation Division of Health, offered Sebelius a case study of the problems faced by rural Navajos trying to access health care.

The secretary was visiting the reservation to learn about issues with health care, transportation and Medicare services.

President Barack Obama appointed Sebelius and she was sworn in as secretary in 2009. Before her cabinet appointment, she served as the governor of Kansas.

So, in case Begay's neighbors are wondering, that is why a Ford 550 Super Duty black bus was idling in his red dirt driveway last Thursday.

Reporters were not allowed in the home during the visit, but afterward, the 65-year-old Begay seemed pleased and there was a further candid exchange open to the media. Sebelius asked Begay how he travels to the hospital.

"When it snows the bulldozer comes first, then the grader," he said, adding that the snow sometimes prevents him from visiting the doctor.

"He has been transported out several times during the winter," said Christine Henry, the senior community health representative who visits Begay twice a week.

After examining the area where Begay does beadwork and woodcarvings, Sebelius asked how much he would charge for the beaded necklace hanging there.

"I take that to buy groceries," Begay said. "People give me $60 for that."

"Good. Charge them more," Sebelius responded.

The secretary's whirlwind visit continued with a stop at Sawmill's Navajo Head Start class where eight students treated her and her entourage to a performance.

Grabbing the secretary's attention was six-month-old Khael Wauneka, who smiled and cooed while his parents, Adrian Wauneka and Khaera Chee of Sawmill, waited for their older son, Kayleb Wauneka, 3, to dance.

Head Start parent Fenelia Castruita, of Blue Canyon, Ariz., said she explained the importance of Sebelius' visit to her 5-year-old daughter Maria Castruita.

"It's a first and it's good to see somebody come out and spend their time with the kids and visit the reservation," Fenelia said.

The fun part aside, Sebelius heard the initiatives Navajo Head Start has taken to comply with federal standards following its shutdown in 2006.

Navajo Head Start Superintendent Sharon Singer admitted the program faced problems in the past but it transformed itself by continuing to implement new polices and standards.

"We are a nation in need and we are looking very much so to going forward so that we can provide the quality programs our children so well deserve," she said.

She added that part of Navajo Head Start's transformation was done with help through tribal consultation and receiving technical support and assistance from the federal Office of Head Start.

"We don't want our students to be behind," Singer said. "We want them to be literate. We want them to be ready. We want to have a strong connection to the language and culture of our nation as well."

Some of the accomplishments listed by Singer were increasing the number of teachers who have bachelor degrees, offering salaries that compete with local public and grant schools, increasing teaching standards to recruit qualified teaching staff, and improving staff development training.

Prior to visiting the community located on the Defiance Plateau, Sebelius met with tribal officials in Window Rock to discuss health care, education and housing.

When the secretary stopped at the Council Chamber, the Naa'bik'iyáti' Committee was in session and paused to hear a brief report from her.

Sebelius spoke about a feasibility study focusing on the possibility of the tribe operating its own Medicaid program.

"We are in the final stages of getting that study back," she said. "I think it's a very important look at the program in terms of cost and possibilities."

But she warned Navajo lawmakers that Congress, not her department, has the power to amend the administrative authority for Medicaid.

"The President has made it very clear that the interest of the tribal nations and the first Americans are key to his initiative," she said.

Delegate Russell Begaye (Shiprock) spoke about the uranium contamination that continues to plague the land and water in his community.

He asked the secretary to reexamine uranium contamination and how the clean-up process for uranium was handled on the Navajo Reservation.

"We suffer greatly from this yellowcake," Begaye said.

Delegate Mel Begay (Bahastl'ah/Coyote Canyon/Mexican Springs/Naschitti/Tohatchi) focused on how health care facilities are managed on the reservation.

Patients have to wait throughout the day to be seen and that is not fulfilling the needs of the people, Begay said.

Before leaving the area, Sebelius was scheduled to tour and meet with Indian Health Service officials July 12 at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup.

Noel Lyn Smith can be reached at or at 928-871-1139.