(L-R): Senior Director of Behavioral Health Juli Skinner, Deputy Chief Bryan Warner, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., Speaker of the Council Mike Shambaugh, Health Services Executive Director Dr. R. Stephen Jones. Back row: District 2 Councilor Candessa Tehee, Treasurer Janees Taylor, Attorney General Sara Hill, District 4 Councilor Mike Dobbins, Cherokee Nation wellness task force leader Canaan Duncan, Chief of Staff Corey Bunch.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner officially enacted a revised “Public Health and Wellness Fund Act” during a signing ceremony Thursday at the Cherokee Nation Outpatient Health Center in Tahlequah. Chief Hoskin thanked the tribe’s behavioral health team, many of whom were present for the signing of the law, and said the expansion is earmarking $15 million over the next three years to help construct drug treatment facilities in the Cherokee Nation.

Chief Hoskin and Deputy Chief Warner’s plan to expand the existing Public Health and Wellness Fund Act was given approval by the Council of the Cherokee Nation on April 11. The revised law will amend and strengthen the Public Health and Wellness Fund Act initially signed in 2021 by Chief Hoskin, and will use the tribe’s initial opioid settlement money to build the drug treatment facilities and other opioid remediation, addiction prevention and treatment programs.

“For far too long, the Cherokee people have suffered generational trauma at the hands of harmful substances. The impact of that has left too many Cherokee families with physical and mental harm. Using the funds provided to the Cherokee Nation by our recent opioid settlement, we are going to turn the tide by generating hope and giving our citizens a welcome space here at home to focus on healing,” Chief Hoskin said. “As I have said from the onset of this discussion, we will make these important steps in phases to ensure we build the best facilities that can be built for Cherokee citizens. We are developing long-term plans for a comprehensive behavioral health system that features in-patient and out-patient services. In the meantime, we are going to start building these facilities to provide other tiers of treatment for those who are dealing with addiction, such as transitional living centers.”

The Cherokee Nation recently finalized a $75 million settlement with opioid distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen to be paid over six years

In a separate settlement, a tentative agreement with Johnson & Johnson was reached with all federally-recognized tribes for $150 million. The Cherokee Nation estimates receiving $18 million over two years.  

The tribe is evaluating uses for the remaining opioid settlement funds, which will likely be used for additional behavioral health capital projects.

“The men and women who work for the Cherokee Nation’s behavioral health programs are top-notch experts who strive every day to help Cherokee citizens heal from their individual traumas and experiences,” Chief Hoskin said. “Over the past two-and-a-half years, First Lady January and I, as well as Deputy Chief Warner and our health leadership team, have visited a number of residential treatment facilities to better understand the best strategies for providing comfort, culture and healing to those struggling with addiction. By dedicating some of our opioid settlement funds to these types of programs, we can start putting ideas into action and expand upon the great work our behavioral health programs are already involved in.”

In addition to setting aside initial opioid funds for treatment facilities, the amended Public Health and Wellness Fund Act would also generate more funding for wellness programs by broadening the type of third-party revenue Cherokee Nation Health Services sets aside.

The proposed legislation maintains the 7 percent set aside of third-party revenue, but the expanded definition of third-party revenue is expected to exceed the estimated $12 million annual target of the original law.

Among the new programs funded by the law is a harm reduction program opening soon in Tahlequah to help those currently struggling with addiction to stay as safe and healthy as possible while they seek a path to recovery.

“I think society today all too often overlooks the importance of mental health and wellness. Physical and mental health are equally important to Cherokees,” Deputy Chief Warner said. “I’m confident strong investments in both areas will have the sort of lasting impacts that not only improve our physical health, but also help us reverse the damage done by the opioid industry. It’s time to heal our Cherokee families and communities, and this is one of the ways we can start that process together.”

Physical wellness programs that will receive operating funds under the act include a planned $10 million wellness center in Stillwell and a $10 million community center in Kenwood. 

“Addictions can, and often do, impact all of us directly or indirectly. I know many Cherokee citizens who have personal struggles and who need the hope and comfort that our new drug treatment facilities will be able to offer them,” said District 12 Councilor Dora Patzkowski, co-chair of the Council’s Health Committee. “Of all the great ways Chief Hoskin’s administration has worked with the Council of the Cherokee Nation, combining our efforts to invest millions into behavioral health for the Cherokee people is perhaps the most profound achievement that will truly make generational impacts.”

A wellness task force led by former Cherokee Councilman Canaan Duncan has also been empaneled by Chief Hoskin to make recommendations for other physical wellness programs and services across the tribe’s reservation.

“Although drug addiction can be a complicated discussion, we are continuing to make progress in the Cherokee Nation,” said District 4 Councilor Mike Dobbins, chair of the Council’s Health Committee. “The Public Health and Wellness Fund Act expansion will give us the resources to make historic strides in healing our people while incorporating culture and traditions that are so important to Cherokee families.”

Cherokee Nation Health Services is evaluating potential sites for construction of the tribe’s drug treatment facilities. The location and number of facilities will then be determined.