It took something special to get state Rep. Troy Heinert of Mission to skip a couple days of his first South Dakota legislative session.
The state wrestling tournament? That was a no-brainer for Heinert, a horseman and businessman from Mission who also serves as head wrestling coach at Todd County High School.
"I had to leave session for that," the 40-year-old member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe said. "We had a school-record seven kids at the state tournament. I couldn't miss it."
There were other can't-miss events for Heinert in the South Dakota Capitol, where grappling with conflicting ideas often involves tournament-level energy. His focus was particularly intense during meetings of the House Health and Human Services Committee, where the first-term House member represented the people and issues from Indian Country in ways that impressed Chairman Scott Munsterman.
"Rep. Heinert has been a great addition to the committee," said Munsterman, a Republican from Brookings. "He is always bringing the perspective of what life is like on the reservation and the availability of health care. He has represented that area quite well."
Heinert brings a diverse mixture of life and cultural experiences to the Capitol. He was raised on the Rosebud reservation but moved to Pierre with his family after his father, Harold, died of cancer at 35.
Heinert is a 1991 graduate of Pierre High School, where he was a varsity wrestler who made it to state himself. He worked his way back to the reservation and eventually graduated from Sinte Gleska University in Mission later in the 1990s.
He taught for a while, followed his love for and expertise with horses into the rodeo area as a pickup rider for bronc-riding events and began youth wrestling programs as he developed his own business.
For the past five years he has been head wrestling coach at Todd County High School, building a program that sent that school-record seven wrestlers to state.
"Though we didn't do the best at the tournament, we were proud of how many we qualified," Heinert said. "And until the kids get there, they don't know what is really expected there, what it takes."
The same could be said of the state Legislature, where Heinert found a strange new atmosphere of debate and discussion, ideas that made sense and ideas that puzzled him.
"There have been a few bills, I guess, that just made me wonder," he said. "One was the school sentinel bill. I think we took the easy way out on that, saying we'd let the school districts decide."
Heinert opposed HB1087, a bill that authorized local school districts to allow armed sentinels trained in gun handling in their schools. Advocates said that for districts that don't have the option of school resource officers used in Rapid City and other places, the armed sentinel option could improve safety.
Heinert questioned that.
"If school safety is a real issue to us, we should have sat down and found the money to provide trained officers for these schools," he said."
Heinert considers that a health and safety issue, as well as an educational one. An even larger issue for him was the proposed expansion of Medicaid coverage that was opposed, for this year at least, by Gov. Dennis Daugaard and not addressed by the Republican-controlled Legislature overall.
States that take advantage of it will have virtually all of the cost of expansion paid initially, with a rising state share as the years go on. It would mean hundreds of million of dollars a year in additional federal dollars for the state and health care extended to up to 48,000 who don't have it now, Heinert said.
"How can we not do that?" he said.
Critics of the expansion worry that ultimately the federal government will be unable or unwilling to fund most of the expansion, leaving South Dakota with most of the bill and no way to pay it.
Munsterman said those concerns will be addressed in a process of examining the expansion, which began this session. His committee has nominated the expansion as a subject for a summer study committee.
"I've always said that once we understand the fiscal impact from a broad range, then we begin to weigh that against our moral obligations as a people," Munsterman said.
Heinert believes in those obligations after witnessing years of challenging health-care issues on the reservation. Native Americans who qualify for Medicaid and seek services at Indian Health Service facilities are covered without state matching dollars, he said. When they seek those services outside the IHS system, the state must provide a match.
"This issue is more important than ever because the IHS is so critically underfunded," Heinert said. "People often don't have access to needed tests or preventative care, so they're constantly dealing with emergency care or waiting until the treatment options are really expensive."
That's not meant as criticism to IHS personnel, most of whom he considers to be "very dedicated" but working in a stretched-thin system.
"The needs are so great and the funding so low, we don't get things fixed like we should," he said. "If you tear your ACL, you're probably not going to get it repaired. The funding dries up and you get a brace and Tylenol."
Heinert will stay active in this issue leading up to the 2014 session, where he hopes expansion will find more support. But he'll have plenty else to occupy his time back on the reservation, operating the Prairie Hills Golf Course and the Chute 2 restaurant and lounges. He also works the rodeo circuit as a professional pickup man for bronc rides.
He and his family live on the old ranch place west of Mission where he grew up and where he feels his roots in emotion-evoking ways.
"So I'm right back where I started," Heinert said. "It's a little surreal sometimes. There are so many moments of deja vu."