Chair McCollum Statement at Hearing on Indian Health Service COVID-19 Response

2020-06-11 12:23

Congresswoman Betty McCollum (D-MN), Chair of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, delivered the following remarks at the Subcommittee's hearing on Indian Health Service COVID-19 response:

This hearing will come to order. Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s oversight hearing on the Indian Health Service’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in Indian Country.

I’d like to welcome our first witness, Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee, the recently confirmed Director of the Indian Health Service. You were Acting Director for a while, but it was made permanent a few months ago. Congratulations! Director Weahkee is also a citizen of the Zuni Pueblo, located in New Mexico.  Currently, the Pueblo is one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots. I hope everyone at the Tribe is doing well, and I wish you and your family good health.

We have two panels this morning and I will introduce the second panel when they are called. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our entire Nation, but there are pronounced racial disparities in its impact, with African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Native Americans experiencing higher rates of infection and death. Tribal communities, in particular, are disproportionately feeling the effects of the pandemic.  According to the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, five Tribes are experiencing more instances of coronavirus per 100,000 citizens than any state, including New York.

The United States government has a trust responsibility to Indian tribes and signed treaties promising to provide health care and other services. Hundreds of years later, the failure to meet these treaty and trust obligations continues. 

This Subcommittee has made sustained increases in Tribal funding in an attempt to meet these obligations. But we have not yet been able to overcome historic neglect and meet the true needs of Indian Country. Today we see the dire effects of the failure to meet those needs.

The Federal government has failed to provide clean water and sanitation services. Without clean water, our Native brothers and sisters are unable to protect themselves through frequent hand washing necessary to prevent the virus, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The Federal government has failed to provide enough housing. Without housing, our Native brothers and sisters are left in overcrowded homes that prevent social isolation and quarantining, as recommended by CDC.

The Federal government has failed to provide adequate health facilities to meet basic health care needs, much less to respond to a virus running rampant across the country.

Even if facilities were not dilapidated, the Federal government has failed to provide basic preventative health care. Native Americans have some of the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other diseases that contribute to higher death rates from COVID-19.

The Nation’s failure to provide basic services is so acute that the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders is assisting Native Americans in the southwest. We like to believe that this organization only helps third-world countries, but that is the state in which we have left Indian Country.

The failure to meet our treaty obligations extends beyond health care. It includes inadequate education in dilapidated schools and detention facilities that violate basic American rights. The list goes on and on. It is too extensive to itemize, and all those broken promises from the federal government are multiplying the risks for Native communities during this pandemic.

There is still time to change this narrative. To date, this Subcommittee has provided $1.1 billion to the Indian Health Service. However, while IHS has allocated those funds, it has only obligated $614 million. So I look forward to hearing from our witness when those dollars will go out the door.

In addition, IHS has received over $800 million from the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. My understanding is relatively little of that has been obligated.

With the funds provided, now would be the time to start fulfilling the Nation’s obligations. Instead, the Federal government is failing once again - providing insufficient personal protective equipment, incomplete test kits, and delayed distribution of funds. As of June 9, IHS reports 13,806 positive COVID-19 cases. That is out of 162,595 tests provided, or an 8.5% positive rate.  But this is not even a comprehensive picture of the extent of the virus and the deaths it has caused.

The reason for this, is that IHS can only give us data from facilities that they manage or that voluntarily report information. No one is compiling data for a comprehensive picture Indian Country as a whole.

I look forward to a time when Indian Country is not treated as an afterthought. To a time when the Federal government provides state of the art facilities and equipment, enough medical personnel, and high-speed broadband to enable modern electronic health records and quality telemedicine.

This subcommittee has worked in a non-partisan way to try to improve the situation and increase funding for Indian Country. We have made some progress, but budget caps and sequestration have constrained our work, and federal spending for Indian health lags far behind. For example, in 2017, IHS per capita spending was $4,078, as compared to $8,109 for Medicaid, $10,692 for the Veterans Health Administration, and $13,185 for Medicare.

Last month, the House passed H.R. 6800, the Heroes Act. In that bill, House Democrats would provide an additional $2.1 billion to help IHS, tribal and urban Indian health organizations fight coronavirus.

We cannot stop there though – we must make other investments to address the lack of water, insufficient housing, and poor schools and public safety and justice facilities. The Heroes Act is not intended to address the extensive infrastructure needs of Tribal nations. For that, I am hopeful that another package will be put forth soon. In the meantime, Senate Republicans should recognize the urgency and pass the Heroes Act immediately to provide the emergency relief that Indian Country needs.

Throughout this pandemic, we have been in contact with Tribes and Tribal organizations about the impact the virus is having on Native Americans. For this hearing, we invited them to submit written testimony for the record. Some have submitted written testimony already, but given how busy Indian Country is fighting the pandemic, we will be keeping the record open for seven days to give additional Tribes and Tribal organizations more time to prepare testimony.

After Director Weahkee’s testimony, we will hear from a second panel consisting of the National Indian Health Board and the National Council of Urban Indian Health. These organizations will discuss the issues and challenges they have seen, but also how we as a Nation can fulfill our promises to Native Americans going forward.

Before I yield to my friend, Mr. Joyce, for his remarks, I must take a moment to publicly condemn the events that took place outside the White House here in Washington DC on June 1. I am sickened that our government used chemical agents and rubber bullets to forcefully remove a peaceful demonstration against racial injustice and police brutality. I intend to continue to demand answers from the U.S. Park Police and this Administration, so that those who made the decision to forcefully clear a constitutionally protected protest for a presidential photo op are held accountable.


116th Congress