Fond du Lac Band's retired human services director honored by UMD
Early in Phil Norrgard's career as director of human services for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a locally-compiled cookbook was sold to make money for health programs.
The first step in the recipe for a rabbit stew was to find and catch the rabbit.
Norrgard likened the start of the recipe to how he approached his job of 37 years.
"If you want to start programs, you need the money," he said. "So my job as a technocrat was to figure out where the resources were. I was a bird dog."
His work helped take the band's human services division from two double-wide trailers on the reservation to several modern facilities in Cloquet, Duluth and Minneapolis, and from five employees with a $258,000 annual budget to 325 employees with a $42 million budget.
Norrgard, who retired in January, was honored by the University of Minnesota Duluth on Monday with the Outstanding Achievement Award, one of the highest honors given to an alumnus.
UMD Chancellor Lendley Black called Norrgard a "visionary and a tireless worker," whose "fierce and informed advocacy" for Native Americans has been recognized by regional and national leaders.
He has created "an extraordinary health and social service delivery system that serves thousands of people in Minnesota," Black said.
Norrgard's career includes leading efforts in the 1990s to craft laws allowing tribes and the federal Indian Health Service to collect reimbursement from the state for many of the services they offered. In 2005, he developed a "tribal sponsorship" program that called for the band to pay the drug insurance premiums of Native American patients.
An electronic pharmacy billing system created under Norrgard's watch worked to aggressively collect third party income, and after the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, Norrgard developed a program that helped most Fond du Lac patients get health insurance. Tribes across the country have adopted these programs.
Norrgard, visibly emotional during the award presentation, gave credit to his staff and several of the elected tribal leaders he worked with during his time as director.
The UMD honor, he said, "is humbling and gratifying. But it's not my achievement, it's really for the team."
He had struggles in his work: managing outbreaks of meningitis and tuberculosis, and trying to combat widespread opioid addiction.
Dealing with institutional racism and "the perceptions of people that minority populations are so undeserving or not worthy" was a persistent challenge, Norrgard said. "It was always so hard to convince people that we can build (services) at Fond du Lac just as good as anywhere else, and my ambition was to always make it better."
Dr. Kathleen Annette nominated Norrgard for the award. The former deputy director of field operations for the Indian Health Service and current CEO of the Blandin Foundation lauded him for the passion he put into his work and his efforts to secure money for programs, helping to make Fond du Lac "a world-class clinic."
He showed how partnerships are built and why Indian Country should be funded, she said.
The Fond du Lac Band was the first in Indian Country to open a prescription drug treatment program, after seeing opioid addiction explode in 2005. It began the first tribally-operated off-reservation foster care licensing and placement agency in the country and the first on-reservation agency in Minnesota. The band was the first in the country to have an American Diabetes Association certification and to be accredited by the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care.
"We've grown by leaps and bounds from where we started, thanks to the determination of Phil," said Ferdinand Martineau, secretary and treasurer of the Fond du Lac tribal council.
Norrgard has made the band a "leader in the country" for its health care delivery system, Martineau said, with a model that other tribes work to replicate.
Norrgard's service development success has meant recognition from the Indian Health Service, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Indian Health Board and Harvard University's Honoring Nations Program. His policy work led to his appointment to the MNsure board of directors in 2013 by Gov. Mark Dayton, who proclaimed Jan. 18, the day he retired, "Phil Norrgard Day" in the state.