GAO file photo

Biden Has Picked a Long-Time Indian Health Service Official to Lead the Agency

Roselyn Tso would be in charge of an agency that serves members of 574 federally recognized tribes in 37 states. 

President Biden announced on Wednesday that he has picked a long-time Indian Health Service employee to lead the agency, which serves over 2 million individuals across the country. 

Biden will nominate Roselyn Tso, who is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, to be the Indian Health Service’s director. Tso began her career with the agency in 1984. IHS, housed within the Health and Human Services Department, provides federal health services to American Indians and Alaska Natives, populations that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tso has worked in various capacities in the Portland Area IHS and at the agency’s headquarters. She now serves as the area director for the Navajo Area IHS, which “delivers health services to a user population of over 244,000 American Indians; the Navajo Nation is one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States consisting of more than 25,000 contiguous square miles and three satellite communities, and extends into portions of the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah,” said a statement from the White House. “In her leadership position, she was responsible for the implementation of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act and worked directly with tribes and direct service tribes.” 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer congratulated Tso on the nomination in a statement. 

The National Congress of Indian Americans said in its statement that it was “pleased that the Biden-Harris Administration is taking steps to fill the IHS Director position, which is essential to fulfilling the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribal Nations. We look forward to engaging with the candidate during the process and working with the administration to ensure IHS is fully prepared to meet the needs of Indian Country.” 

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawai, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he is “committed to seeking Indian Country’s input on Ms. Tso’s nomination as the committee carefully considers her qualifications.”

IHS serves members of 574 federally recognized tribes in 37 states with a total population of over 2 million. The agency has about 14,000 employees, according to the most recent data online from the Office of Personnel Management. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, IHS struggled to provide adequate care, which the Biden administration has sought to change. 

Elizabeth Fowler, a member of the Comanche Nation with descendancy from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, has been serving as the acting leader of IHS since Biden came into office. She took over from Rear Adm. Michael Weahkee, who was confirmed in April 2020 and was the agency’s first permanent leader in five years. 

A presidential task force under the Trump administration issued a report in July 2020 based on its investigation into institutional failures at the agency. Among its findings was “systemic issues of low-morale, lack of leadership, and inability to recruit and retain enough qualified healthcare professionals.” 

Separately,, which provides Native American news, published a timeline in February 2019 tracking the Indian Health Service’s “leadership crisis” that started under the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration.

The appropriations package for fiscal 2022 that lawmakers released early on Wednesday morning and the White House supported includes $6.6 billion for IHS, which is an increase of $395 million or about 6% above the fiscal 2021 enacted level.

Within that is $4.7 billion for health services, $940 million for health facilities construction and full funding for “contract support costs and payments for tribal leases,” said a fact sheet.