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Patrick Springer, Published August 02 2012

Reprimand lifted for Spirit Lake whistleblower Dr. Tilus

FARGO – The Indian Health Service has rescinded its reprimand of a clinical psychiatrist who sounded the alarm over what he regarded as systemic failures to protect endangered children of the Spirit Lake Tribe.

A letter of reprimand has been ordered removed from the personnel file of Dr. Michael Tilus, and an offer for him to serve an IHS posting at Fort Belknap in Montana has been restored, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Human Services, which oversees the IHS, said Thursday.

“HHS is committed to protecting the health and safety of the American people and ensuring that the rights of those who raise concerns about health and safety are protected,” spokesman Mark Weber said in a statement.

“After reviewing the personnel actions in this case, the IHS Director immediately took action to reverse them. We remain committed to working with the tribe, state and federal officials to improve efforts to combat child abuse in the Spirit Lake community.”

A senior aide to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., applauded Thursday’s announcement, which he said came after the senator and his staff had expressed concerns that Tilus had been reprimanded after sending a “letter of grave concern” about serious gaps in child protective services on the Spirit Lake reservation.

When Tilus’ reprimand became known last week, Hoeven, through contacts by staff members, conveyed his concerns to the IHS about possible retaliation.

“Employees should be free and comfortable in raising concerns with federal officials,” said Ryan Bernstein, Hoeven’s deputy chief of staff and legal counsel.

Tilus was not available for comment. When informed of Thursday’s actions, Tilus was grateful, Bernstein said.

“He was extremely happy and very thankful for our efforts,” he said.

Thursday’s reversal appeared abrupt. Just a day earlier, the head of the IHS Spirit Lake Health Center had sent a memo to staff, obtained by Forum Communications, directing them not to speak with Tilus.

“Effective immediately, please be advised that Dr. Michael Tilus is not to be consulted or contacted regarding patient care issues,” wrote Arlene de la Paz, director of the clinic.

She added that Tilus had been detailed to the IHS’ area office in Aberdeen, S.D., and was no longer providing direct patient care.

Any future contact, De la Paz said, would constitute a violation of patient privacy protections and “will be handled accordingly.”

“We pushed hard on this,” Bernstein said of lifting the reprimand and clearing Tilus’ record. “Sen. Hoeven wanted to make sure this was taken care of.”

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., also issued a statement of concern regarding Tilus’ reprimand.


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522