GROUNDED: Oglala Sioux Tribe leaders say IHS use of outside air ambulance service is failing members

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — A recent shooting on the Pine Ridge Reservation brought to light a controversy.

“Just recently we had an individual that was shot in one of the communities and we had our bird sitting here, but yet, we waited an hour for Rapid City to fly in,” says Garfield Steele, the Wounded Knee district councilman.

Seven of the nine districts of the Oglala Sioux Tribe signed on, and in 2019, Oglala Lakota Air Rescue began operating.

“Around 2017, it was brought to us to bring our own air rescue to the reservation,” says Derek Janis, co-founder and board member with Oglala Lakota Air Rescue. We [saw] we needed it to get our community members, our relatives, to higher care quicker,” Janis says.

Img 2041Despite their centralized location in Pine Ridge, tribal leaders say the Indian Health Service isn’t utilizing them.

“We have our own air ambulance that is owned by the districts of the Oglala Sioux Tribe sitting just a half mile from IHS, but yet, we’re still utilizing these other companies to fly in from Rapid City, which takes at least up to 50 min to an hour to get here,” Steele says.

IHS makes the call for air transport, and Janis says he wishes they’d use O.L.A.R. more.

“It’s our number one goal to take care of our people, our healthcare. That should be our number one goal, but yet it’s not at the forefront,” Steele says. “They’re failing in that matter.”

According to Steele, IHS says O.L.A.R. must be “comparable to their vendors,” and must have all the same capabilities – something both Steele and Janis say O.L.A.R. has.

“We’re just as certified as any other air rescue,” Janis says. “It’s not like we came in with no certificates.”

O.L.A.R. says in order to become a flight medic or flight nurse, you have to have three-to-five years relevant experience with ICU or flight training, and pilots must have a minimum of 500 flight hours. The company is certified by C.A.M.T.S. – the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems – and is licensed in South Dakota and the national registry as well.

“We have the same certifications and we could do the same flight as any other air rescue in the area,” Janis says.

O.L.A.R. is the first native-owned air rescue in the United States, and Janis says the goal is to be fully-owned and operated by the tribe, calling it “the people’s helicopter.”

“It’s not about pleasing this company because its native-owned. It’s about getting the quality care for our patients,” Steele adds. “It should be more about our patients’ care than satisfying companies. It was about saving lives. Our people want better healthcare.”

NewsCenter1 reached out to IHS before doing the story. After an initial response from their public affairs office saying someone would be in touch – and despite repeated attempts since – we’ve been unable to reach them for a response.

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