Government , Health

Indian Country health officials testify before Senate subcommittee on COVID-19

WASHINGTON — Officials from three national inter-tribal organizations laid bare their concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on Indian Country.

On Sept. 30, representatives with the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Health Board and the National Council of Urban Indian Health testified before the Interior and Environment subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee on the impact COVID-19 has had on Indian Country and the need not only for additional immediate funds, but greater flexibility on how they can be spent.  

“There are a lot of administrative restrictions placed on us,” said Francys Crevier, NCIUH’s chief executive officer. “That has really challenged our programs. It’s not that we don’t need it – we absolutely need it – but there are way too many restrictions on how it is used.”

As an example, Crevier spoke of an urban Indian clinic that had planned to use federal COVID relief funds for HVAC improvements that would reduce the risk of spreading droplets, only to be advised that such a project was not acceptable since the system’s impact would not be limited solely to COVID-19 patient rooms.

Indian Health Services received $1.1 billion as part of the CARES Act, which was approved in March. However, no additional federal COVID-19 relief dollars have been appropriated since.

The HEROES Act, which includes an additional $2.3 billion for Native health entities, was approved by the House of Representatives in May but has since languished in the Senate. NCUIH alone has requested $121.9 million in additional funds, including $7.3 million per year for three years just to address the increased behavioral health caseload brought on by the pandemic.

“Black and brown children are dying, and no one is paying attention,” Crevier said.

NCAI, the country’s oldest and largest inter-tribal organization, has requested an additional $20 billion in relief funds, including emergency appropriations for the current fiscal year.

The organization’s CEO, Kevin Allis, a citizen of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, noted that the pandemic has strained many tribal governments, thanks to the 1-2 punch of increased need and fewer financial resources available. Tribal gaming operations were originally prohibited from applying for the Payroll Protection Program, thus delaying access to additional resources in the pandemic’s early stages.

“Indian Country is in a national emergency that while intensified by COVID-19, has its roots in the federal government’s neglect of its fiduciary obligations to tribal nations and citizens,” he said.

Further compounding the problem is the lack of a complete data set upon which to base budget requests.       

Only 23 states include Indigenous people in their COVID-19 data sets, so the virus’ full impact on Indian Country is still unknown. However, the data that is available shows that Indian Country is disproportionately impacted, with the virus’ fatality rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives at 3.5 times higher than among white people. The hospitalization rate is 4.7 times higher for Indigenous people than their white neighbors.

In Oklahoma, American Indians and Alaska Natives make up 9.4 percent of the total population. They also account for 9.76 percent of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 9.8 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities as per the Oklahoma State Department of Health.

As of Sept. 28, Indian Health Services reported 50,219 of its patients have tested positive nationwide, or about 6 percent of all people tested at either a direct care facility or one operated by a tribe that is voluntarily submitting data.

“What we don’t know is as problematic as what we do know,” NIHB representative Carolyn Angus-Hornbuckle said. “We are bearing the brunt of this crisis.”