New York State health commissioner takes tour of Akwesasne community
AKWESASNE - The Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council recently welcomed New York State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald for a guided tour of the Akwesasne community on Thursday, Sept. 14.
It was the first visit to Akwesasne for Dr. McDonald, who was joined by First Nations Health and Wellness and NYS American Indian Health Program Director Michèle Hamel.Appointed as the Acting-Commissioner of the Department of Health in January 2023, Dr. James McDonald was confirmed as NYS Health Commissioner by the State Senate on June 10. Since that time, Dr. McDonald has been working to empower New Yorkers to live healthier lives and increase their access to quality health care, including within underserved areas of the State.
“It was truly an honor to meet with the leaders and spend the day with the people of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. James McDonald said. “It is so important that we continue to build and strengthen our partnership, and expand our understanding, as we work to promote public health. We discussed some of the challenges facing Akwesasne, and I look forward to working together to address these challenges and to finding new opportunities to expand our relationship.”
The day-long tour began with introductions at the Ionkwakiohkwarό:ron Tribal Administration Building with members of the Tribal Council, Executive Director’s Office, Health Services Administration, and tribal technicians. Constructed in 2018 to provide a safer and healthier environment for staff and community members, the Health Commissioner toured the 54,700-square-foot facility that consolidated tribal programs and helped make community services more accessible for tribal members.
Commissioner McDonald also spent the morning visiting the Ronthahiiohsthà:ke Clubhouse that is situated within the Diabetes Center for Excellence at 66 Margaret Terrance Memorial Way. Overseen by the Tribe’s Alcohol/Chemical Dependency Prevention Program (A/CDP) and funded by the NYS Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS), A/CDP Clubhouse Supervisor Anastasia Benedict shared resources and services that are being made available to assist youth as “they are making their minds good.”
Following a short visit and discussion on services supported by the NYS Office for the Aging at the Tribe’s Seniors Center (Tsi Tetewatatkens), Commissioner McDonald and Director Hamel visited the health services complex. SRMT Health Director Michael Cook and Assistant Health Director Kim McElwain were on hand to discuss the clinic’s recently completed expansion and renovation project and efforts to provide tribal members with access to quality healthcare.
The Tribe’s health administration team shared difficulties attracting and retaining healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses, as well as the reduction of health services at nearby medical facilities that clients had been accustomed to accessing. The reduction in surgical procedures and obstetric services at surrounding hospitals has required tribal members to travel further distances, placing an added burden on the tribal clinic’s budget.
Saint Regis Mohawk Health Director Michael Cook noted, “Recruitment of service providers and workforce challenges, as well as hospital consolidations in the region, have presented obstacles to our ability to provide continuum of care for our clients. We are also experiencing an increase in demand for mental and behavioral-health services that we look forward to addressing through a collaborative approach with the NYS Department of Health.”
Commissioner McDonald and Director Hamel next visited the Partridge House with A/CDP Clinical Director Connie Thompson and Program Coordinator Chrystal Cree to learn about the Health Service’s In-Patient Addiction Treatment Program. The visit touched upon obstacles faced with external funding agencies in considering preventive and rehabilitation services that are often uniquely tailored and incorporate culturally appropriate treatments.
After a traditional meal hosted at the Partridge House, Commissioner McDonald and Director Hamel toured the St. Regis Mohawk School and the proposed location for a new elementary school. They spoke about the $17.8 million slated to construct a new Mohawk School in the 2022-2023 State Budget, away from a flood prone area on land to be provided by the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe through negotiations with the State.
In concluding the Health Commissioner’s tour, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Council thanked Commissioner James McDonald and Director Michèle Hamel for their visit to Akwesasne, stating “We appreciate Dr. McDonald and Director Hamel for taking time to visit and discuss some of the most pressing health issues and challenges being faced in our effort to improve the wellbeing of our community members. We look forward to strengthening our new relationship with the NYS Department of Health over the coming years and to continue our efforts to better serve the Akwesasne community.”