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Bill grants Tribal health authorities access to essential data

New legislation was introduced in August in Congress that would break down barriers Tribal authorities have faced in gaining access to critical public health data.

The “Tribal Health Data Improvement Act” came together after news reports earlier in the summer that the federal government was withholding potentially life-saving information from Tribal health authorities.

Passage of the bill would ensure that Tribes and Tribal Epidemiology Centers (TECs) have direct access to federal health care and public health surveillance systems.

It would also require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to work directly with Tribes to address widespread misclassification and under sampling of American Indians and Alaska Natives on birth and death records.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM.

The legislation has bipartisan support.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, joined other members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, including bill sponsor, Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-MT, and cosponsors, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-WA, Markwayne Mullin, R-OK, Tom O’Halleran, D-AZ, and Raul Ruiz, D-CA.

“Native American Tribes face structural challenges accessing federal public health data that state and local governments can access – data they are entitled to by law,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “This needs to change. Our bipartisan bill tears down this information barrier so Tribal communities can utilize federal data to help guide their public health decision-making, something that is critically important during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Native Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the lawmakers said.

“As we continue our work to reduce disparities in health outcomes, access to public health data will help close the gap,” the statement said.

Background

Rep. Luján had criticized the Trump administration during a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on June 17 for its “disparate treatment of Tribal Epidemiology Centers.”

In response, during a June 23 hearing, CDC director Robert Redfield made a commitment to share Covid-19 data with all 12 TECs.

Then on July 1, Rep. Luján signed a bipartisan letter that was sent to Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar requesting information on the CDC’s policies and practices to ensure TECs have access to all public health surveillance data as required by law.

Meanwhile, the National Indian Health Board is throwing its support behind the bill.

“Tribal Nations, as sovereign governments, are inherent public health authorities providing vital public health programs and services to their citizens and communities,” NIHB CEO Stacy A. Bohlen said in a statement. “Yet for years, both Tribes and TECs have faced immense challenges in accessing federal and state health data systems necessary to engage in foundational public health work.”

Such health work, Bohlen said, includes the reporting of a disease or injury; reporting vital events such as births or deaths; and conducting public health surveillance, investigations or interventions.

The NIHB wants the legislation attached to the next Covid-19 relief package.

For more information, contact NIHB director of congressional relations, Shervin Aazami, at saazami@nihb.org.

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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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