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Tribes consulted on speedy, fair distribution of COVID-19 funding

The Indian Health Service held a conference call with tribal leaders this week to talk about the best way to get COVID-19 funds into the hands of tribes. (Image: IHS Facebook )

Indian Health Service (IHS) officials held a consultation call with tribal leaders regarding COVID-19 funds for Indian Country late on March 23.

At issue are two pots of approved funding, and a potential third source that is making its way through the U.S. Congress now.

One source of funds for tribes was designated via the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” (FFCRA) signed into law by President Trump on March 18. It provides $64 million to support the cost of coronavirus testing across the Indian health system.

In addition, the IHS is set to receive $70 million in emergency funds to assist in preventing, preparing and responding to the virus. That funding can be used for items like personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers, transportation for patients and erecting field stations.

The third source would come from a supplemental appropriation lawmakers are expected to vote on soon, which would provide $1 billion for IHS to combat the effects of the virus. That includes a wider variety of options for use that is not just limited to testing, but to “ … get the funding in the hands of those on the front lines as quickly as we can,” Jullian Curtis, the director for the office of finance and accounting at IHS, said.

Rear Adm. Michael D. Weahkee (Zuni), principal deputy director of the IHS, said the organization is working closely with tribal, urban, state and local partners, including the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA).

“We’ve heard from tribal leaders. We have taken that feedback to heart to figure out how to best allocate resources,” Weahkee said on the call, which had more than 500 participants. “Our goal is speed – to hit the broadest base.”

At issue is the logistics of how best to quickly and fairly distribute funds received by the Indian health system to combat the virus.

The IHS has not finalized a distribution methodology to date, which was part of the reason for the conference call with Indian Country leaders.

“Our intention is to get resources out as quickly as possible, hitting all across the IHS-tribally run facilities and entire system,” Curtis said.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida’s health facilities are run by the Tribal government, which is eligible as a federally recognized tribe to receive assistance from IHS, according to STOF Health and Human Services Director Dr. Paul Isaacs.

“We will be applying to receive whatever is available,” he said via email March 23.

It was clear from those participating on the call that distributing the funds through a competitive grant system was not preferred, but through noncompetitive “contracts and compacts.”

IHS officials are also trying to get access to the Strategic National Stockpile for Indian Country needs. The stockpile is the nation’s largest supply of lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to be used during a public health emergency in which local supplies are running out or gone completely.

The most pressing question from callers was: When will the funds come?

IHS officials said some of the funding has already been received by the agency and that it would be “flowing in the coming days.”

“I would not be surprised to see it as quickly as [March 26] or [March 27],” Weahkee said. “We will work to meet allocations as quickly as we can after getting feedback. There’s a desire to maintain our established funding methodologies – it would likely be a proportional distribution. Our goal is to get this funding out as quickly as possible and be fair about it.”

More information is at ihs.gov.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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