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WASHINGTON — Every week Native News Online brings you the latest Indian Country news and moves from Washington, D.C. This past week the U.S. Commerce Department announced $100 million has been allocated to Indigenous communities to provide relief from the pandemic, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on three bills now in Congress and the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services released a report on healthcare trends for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration Offering $100 Million for Indigenous Communities

The U.S. Department of Commerce on Thursday announced the department’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) is announcing $3 billion in funding opportunities to invest in distressed and underserved communities, including Indian Country, impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

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Specific to Indian Country there are opportunities through the Indigenous Communities Challenge where $100 million has been allocated. These funds are for Indigenous communities disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

EDA will work hand-in-hand with tribal governments and Indigenous communities to develop and execute economic development projects needed in their communities to recover from the pandemic and build economies for the future.

Indigenous communities are encouraged and eligible to apply to all EDA’s other programs.

U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hears Testimony on Three Bills 

The U.S. Committee on Indian Affairs conducted a hearing on Wednesday to hearing to receive testimony on three bills that would impact Indian Country in the area of urban Indian health, Indian Heath Service (IHS) sanitation facilities construction and Native American children protection.

During the heating, the Committee heard from the Indian Health Service’s Deputy Director for Management and Operations Randy Grinnell, Department of the Interior’s Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Senior Advisor Heidi Todacheene, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, National Indian Child Welfare Association President Gil Vigil, and National Council of Urban Indian Health Vice President Robyn Sunday-Allen.

Three bills, two Senate bills and one House Bill, were presented for discussion.  Committee Chairman Sen, Bryan Schatz (D-HI) led the committee hearing for these bills: S.1797, S.1895, and H.R.1688.

All of these bills would majorly affect Native Communities if passed. Sen. Schatz started the hearing by stating how each of these bills would be a start in the road to addressing unmet needs in Native communities and programs.

“The federal government has a special trust responsibility to ensure the general welfare of Native communities...But for too long, Congress underfunded Native-serving programs and ignored Native needs on the ground,” Sen. Schatz said.

The first bill is S.1797. This bill has been named “Urban Indian Health Providers Facilities Improvement Act” and it was first introduced May 25, 2021 by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA). This bill would amend the Indian Health Care Improvement Act (25 U.S.C. 1659) to expand the funding authority the Indian Health Service has. Specifically, Section 509 will be amended by striking the word “minor” before “renovations” and “assist through “standards.” These two changes will make funds the Indian Health Service receives available for urban Indian organizations for various renovations, constructions or expansions of urban facilities. 

National Council of Urban Indian Health Vice President Robyn Sunday Allen testified in support of this bill saying that this bill “would enable IHS urban Indian health dollars to be spent where they are needed” and “allow UIO’s to make critical updates to facilities”. She goes on to further explain why this bill is important by describing that “during the Covid-19 pandemic UIO’s were unable to use IHS funds to make critical facility renovations to safely serve patients.” This discrepancy in availability to funds is what contributed to the high rates of Covid-19 in Native communities. 

The second Senate bill: S.1895, was first introduced May 27, 2021, by Sen, Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM). This is one of the biggest bills with one of the biggest impacts on Native Communities out of the three in committee right now. This bill has the potential to award the Indian Health Service Sanitation Facilities Construction Program about $3,000,000,000. This bill would potentially give that money to the Secretary of Health and Human Services to then award to the Indian Health Service. This program works with Indigenous communities to improve their sanitation infrastructure by funding the improvement, construction, or modernization of things like: 

  • Access to clean water  
  • Proper sewers
  • Solid waste facilities

During the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Native people were disproportionately affected by Covid-19. This was due to lack of access to clean water supply on many reservations and lack of satisfactory sanitation infrastructure. 

“We’ve been looking at this issue extensively within the infrastructure negotiations, which I’ve been a part of for many weeks. Many of the priorities that we’ve heard here in this Committee from Tribes across the country with regard to water and sanitation infrastructure, broadband, tribal energy—these are many of the pieces that we are trying to advance in this bipartisan proposal,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), vice chair of the Committee, stated.

The final bill a part of this hearing is H.R.1688. This bill was first introduced by Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) on March 9, 2021. This act would amend the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act which would revise the Indian Child Abuse Treatment Grant Program. This would allow tribes, intertribal consortia, and other urban Indian organizations to use grants for culturally appropriate treatment services and programs. It would also allow them to use program funds for additional costs like additional programs for Child Protective Services.

This bill also renames the Indian Child Resource and Family Services Centers as the National Indian Child Resource and Family Services Center. It would also allow this center to

  • Provide advice, technical assistance, and training to urban Indian organizations; 
  • Develop certain technical assistance materials for Indian tribes, tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations; and
  • Develop model intergovernmental agreements between tribes and states to prevent, investigate, treat, and prosecute incidents of family violence, child abuse, and child neglect involving Indian children and families.

The full recording of the committee hearing can be found here.

HHS Releases Report on Current Trends in Health Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives

The Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation – Office of Health Policy released a new report on Wednesday called "Health Insurance Coverage and Access to Care for American Indians and Alaska Natives: Current Trends and Key Challenges.”

Some key points from the report are below:

  • The uninsured rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives (AI/AN) under age 65 decreased 16 percentage points since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), from 44 percent in 2010 to 28 percent in 2018.
  • However, according to 2019 Census data, the AI/AN population continues to have the highest uninsured rate compared to other populations, though this estimate does not classify the Indian Health Service as health coverage.
  • The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) offers expanded financial assistance for purchasing Marketplace health insurance, and the ARP has made zero-premium plans available to an estimated 26,000 additional uninsured AI/AN people.
  • Oklahoma expanded Medicaid as of July 1, 2021; prior to expanding Medicaid, Oklahoma had the largest uninsured AI/AN population of any state - more than 79,000 people. The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. (2021, March). State, County, And Local Estimates of the Uninsured Population: Prevalence and Key Demographic Features. If remaining non-expansion states were to adopt the ACA Medicaid expansion, approximately 55,000 more uninsured AI/AN non-elderly adults would be eligible for Medicaid coverage.
  • Significant disparities remain, as AI/AN people are disproportionately affected by chronic conditions and die at higher rates than other Americans from chronic liver disease, diabetes, and chronic lower respiratory diseases, as well as non-chronic causes of death such as suicide and accidents.
  • AI/AN have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, and death compared to White persons during the pandemic.  However, after COVID-19 vaccines became available, AI/AN communities have achieved higher COVID-19 vaccination rates compared to other racial and ethnic groups.
  • Strengthening the Indian health care system, together with broader efforts across the federal government and cross-sector partnerships, can promote health equity by addressing social determinants of health such as housing, education, and employment. 

Even though American Indians and Alaska Natives can enroll year-round, the HealthCare.gov Special Enrollment Period provides the opportunity to get coverage more quickly and invites people who need coverage to sign up by August 15.

Neely Bardwell, a Michigan State University student who is interning with Native News Online, contributed to these briefs. 

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