Federal Indian health care bureaucracy is costing lives

ICT OPINION

‘This is a fatal health care disaster in the making’

President Jonathan Nez

Navajo Nation

The Navajo Nation is facing a COVID-19 public health emergency.

We have the largest numbers of confirmed positive cases of any Native American tribe in the United States.

There are 71 confirmed cases across the Navajo Nation. The numbers will increase as we fight to stop community spread. Because COVID-19 is especially fatal for people over 60 years of age, it is extremely dangerous for our elders and the future vitality of our collective tribal cultural knowledge and Navajo language. With over 27,000 square miles spanning Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and over 350,000 tribal members, fighting COVID-19 presents a very difficult challenge.

Compounding this challenge is the historical and shameful lack of federal funding and resources for health care guaranteed by the United States in the signing of the Treaty of 1868. This is not unique to the Navajo Nation. It is a deplorable reality for all 573 federally-recognized tribes in the United States. The truth is that Indian Country has been overlooked when it comes to federal health care resources. This is the case today in our fight for our very physical and cultural survival. The Congress and federal agencies like FEMA and the CDC have largely excluded tribal communities from directly accessing federal funding and resources.

The recent $8.3 billion-dollar spending bill designed to fight COVID-19 created a bureaucratic nightmare for 573 federally-recognized tribes to access $40 million dollars out of the nearly $1 billion dollars earmarked for the entire United States.

Currently, the CDC and the Indian Health Service are stalled in their discussion on how the money should be used for tribal governments to fight COVID-19. If and when, these federal agencies get their act together, there is a problem of the sheer inadequacy of $40 million dollars shared with 605 tribal and urban Indian health care facilities that provide health care to nearly 3 million Native Americans across the United States.

This is a fatal health care disaster in the making.

While the CDC doubled this to $80 million-dollars, Indian Country needs five times that amount of funding to even stand a fighting chance against COVID-19. A second funding package authorizes $64 million dollars for the Indian Health Service to use in 170 hospitals in Indian Country to test for COVID. That’s roughly $376,000 dollars per hospital for a health care population of nearly 3 million Native Americans!

Additionally, we are told, once again, that the funding mechanism for an additional $70 million dollars from DHHS that has been identified for health care resources has yet to be determined. We simply do not have time for federal agencies to figure out their bureaucratic processes. We need funding now.

Since the signing of COVID-19 funding legislation a week and a half ago, states have received their funds to combat this new and aggressive virus. The Navajo Nation and 572 other federally recognized tribes have not received one penny to heal our sick and protect our communities.

We have been recently informed by our Navajo Area Indian Health Services that they only have enough supplies for 30 days. With the tripling and quadrupling of cases in the last five days, these lifesaving supplies will be gone in the next 15 days. That is the reality that we are facing out here in Navajo Country.

The Navajo Nation has taken aggressive measures to ensure that we stand a fighting chance against COVID-19, without federal assistance. We have issued Stay In Place Orders for tribal members. We have initiated our own Health Operations Command Center to organize our resources and health and public safety personnel. We have drastically reduced tribal services and sent thousands of our tribal employees home. We have dedicated over $4 million dollars of our own resources to purchase protective masks, gloves, gowns, and lifesaving equipment for our first responders, and care packages and food boxes for people in outbreak communities who cannot leave their homes. We have closed parks, schools, businesses, and gaming facilities. We were the first Native American Nation to take drastic measures to protect our people.

As we painfully wait for federal resources, our first responders and volunteers are stepping up. They travel long distances from across the Navajo Nation to coordinate limited services and limited resources to Navajo people’s homes to educate them about the Coronavirus and its symptoms and how to stay safe and healthy. They are delivering food and supplies to elders. Like New Mexico, New York, Arizona, Colorado, New Jersey, California, Washington, and many other states, the Navajo Nation is quickly running out of resources to fight COVID-19. We are urgently asking county, state, and federal partners to share their already limited supplies of masks, gloves, protective clothing, law enforcement and emergency response resources.

The White House and federal agencies, and the Congress must answer Indian Country’s dire call for help. A message to the leaders of the United States Government: Honor the legal treaty obligations your ancestors have signed with our Indigenous Nations… Provide increased direct funding and resources for our tribal fight COVID-19. Remove the bureaucratic red tape so that we stand a fighting chance. Great countries, like great men, most honor their promises.

President Jonathan Nez
The Navajo Nation 

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