As the coronavirus increasingly makes its presence known in tribal communities across the country, a leading Senate Democrat took the Trump administration to task Friday for skimping on help for tribes.
Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico—senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies—said the landmark legislation approved by Congress would infuse $10 billion into the coffers of tribal governments and federal programs that serve tribes to help stop the spread of COVID-19. That’s half of the amount he had requested.
The legislation, given final approval Friday, would bring $8 billion directly to tribal governments, plus $2 billion for federal programs that serve tribal nations.
The Indian Health Service, the federal agency that provides healthcare to tribal communities, has reported 110 positive cases of coronavirus in its facilities nationwide, including 72 within its hospitals that serve the Navajo Nation.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Udall said several senators and representatives, including Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), who is one of the first Native women in Congress, had initially requested $20 billion for tribes. Udall said the Trump administration only wanted to provide $3 billion to tribes.
“After the White House and Senate Republican leaders proposed leaving Tribes almost completely empty handed in their initial proposal, I am relieved that we were able to secure these urgently needed resources for Indian Country by staying at the negotiating table and refusing to relent,” Udall said in a statement Friday. “I will keep working to ensure Tribal communities have the support they need from the federal government to stay healthy and financially afloat in this challenging time.”
Speaking as part of a town hall, McSally said she worked closely with the White House and Republican leadership in the chamber to keep the $8 billion in the coronavirus relief bill.
"I won't bore you with all the knife-fighting that had to happen here," said McSally, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. McSally said she "went to the mat" with high-level officials from the White House and from the office of Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the Republican Senate Majority Leader, to keep the $8 billion alive after attempts to reduce it—and even remove it.
Udall, who also serves as Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said the House approved funds for agencies that serve tribal governments, including $1 billion for the Indian Health Service, $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to meet tribes’ safety needs and to purchase protective equipment and another $327 million for the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) has been forced to close 183 schools across the nation as a result of the coronavirus.
The package also includes $300 million for Indian housing programs at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There's also $100 million for the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations at the Department of Agriculture.
Udall said the money for tribal stabilization marks the first time tribes have received such funding. “We were asking for a lot more. We think the need is a lot bigger than $8 billion,” he said.
He said he is especially happy to see the funds for HUD programs that serve tribes. He said addressing problems of overcrowding and housing shortages will be key to stopping the spread of coronavirus in Native communities.
“Indian Country is already facing housing shortages, overcrowding and lack of funding, all of which will be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “The funding made available will help provide emergency relief to tribes to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Udall said lawmakers looked back at what Congress appropriated to federal agencies that serve tribes in the federal stimulus packages approved in 2008 and 2009 to decide what to include in this week’s $2 trillion coronavirus relief package.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced $100 million in grants to be awarded to health centers as part of coronavirus relief, including $2 million for 30 health centers in Oregon. The Native American Rehabilitation Association (NARA), a Native-owned and –operated residential family and outpatient treatment program in Portland, received $54,000 from the relief fund.