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Tribes’ inclusion in $2.2 trillion COVID-19 package seen as progress

Tribes have historically had to fight for every dollar of federal funding it receives.

The Indian Health Service – which has taken on a critical role during the COVID-19 public health crisis – has had to do so as well, even though the federal government has an obligation to properly fund IHS under treaties and other acts.

But while the latest relief package out of Washington did not include the full amount Indian Country asked for, many tribal leaders have said it represented progress.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the biggest economic relief package in U.S. history to help the nation cope with the health care and economic fallout of COVID-19.

About $10 billion was designated for Indian Country.

The recently passed “CARES Act” includes significant funding for Indian Country. (Photo: Full Measure, Facebook)

The bill – the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act” – is intended to assist health care systems that serve Native Americans, such as the IHS, and to improve emergency responses on tribal lands, among other economic goals.

About $1 billion of the funds are being delivered to the IHS, which provides primary medical services to about 2-million Native Americans. Half of that amount has been set aside for tribes and tribal organizations that have contracts with the federal government to operate their own health care facilities, such as the Seminole Tribe.

The IHS funding is of utmost importance in the short term for tribes to deal with the virus, as the system was already dealing with shortfalls in funding.

As of March 28, the IHS reported that 3,033 COVID-19 tests had been administered within its facilities and 135 were positive.

The numbers don’t represent all COVID-19 cases in Indian Country, partly because tribes and tribal organizations are not required to publically divulge such information.

Health care facilities and hospitals across the U.S. that serve Native Americans are facing similar issues that others report – a reduction in services to deal with the COVID-19 fallout and a shortage of supplies like tests, masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Tribes and tribal organizations have repeatedly requested that Congress give it more funds for such equipment and for more medical providers and temporary housing.

Tribes have also asked for access to the Strategic National Stockpile.

The CARES Act is also expected to reimburse tribes for the costs of transitioning some doctors’ appointments to remote options online and by phone.

Tribes are also expected to be eligible for federal loans to help pay tribal employees.

Many tribes, including the Seminole Tribe, have temporarily closed casinos and reduced other business operations that are major sources of revenue.

The majority of the funds are set to be distributed by the U.S. Treasury Department with guidance by tribes and the Interior Department based on need.

About $40 million that was earmarked for tribes in an earlier package is being distributed through a grant program under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and tribes could start applying for that funding March 30.

Other provisions of the CARES Act allow tribes to be reimbursed for some unemployment benefits and for more funds for housing.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs is expected to receive more than $450 million to support teleworking and overtime costs, welfare assistance and social service programs, and to expand public safety and emergency responses.

Funds are also earmarked to help childcare providers, and to pay for staffing, transportation and cleaning at Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools and tribal colleges.

Click here for the Seminole Tribune story that shows a further breakdown of CARES Act funding for Indian Country provided by Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota.

More information is also available 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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