Chair Grijalva hails coronavirus relief package

Pictured: U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ-03), Chair, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee.(Photo: grijalva.house.gov)

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Highlights financial assistance for Indian Country and U.S. Territories, urges more support in future bills

News Release

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee

Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) today said the passage of the CARES Act is a good step forward in the federal government’s ongoing effort to build up health care capacity in historically underserved and at-risk communities, including Native American tribes and U.S. territories, and urged his colleagues to include further financial and logistical support for hard-hit communities in upcoming legislation. Grijalva has been a leading voice in Congress since the beginning of the pandemic for expanded testing and health care infrastructure in Indian Country, where dozens of cases and several deaths have already been recorded.

Grijalva wrote to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials yesterday seeking more information on how the multi-agency COVID-19 response will assist tribes, many of which do not have health care facilities or ventilator equipment comparable to non-tribal communities. That letter, available at https://bit.ly/3buHEAf, seeks more information about issues raised on a March 24 briefing call between Grijalva, the Indian Health Service, and Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

Haaland is Vice Chair of the Committee, and Gallego is Chair of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.

Grijalva, Haaland and Gallego issued a joint call following the March 24 briefing for greater Trump administration attention to pressing health care needs in Indian Country, where a lack of basic health care infrastructure – and in some cases running water – can combine with widespread multi-generational housing to increase COVID-19 risks in communities least able to address them. Recent features in the Wall Street Journal, Politico, the Arizona Republic and elsewhere have spotlighted the administration’s escalating failures to contain COVID-19 in tribal areas.

Grijalva and Rep. Gregorio Sablan (D-CNMI) published an op-ed with El Nuevo Dia this morning calling on Congress to remember the specific needs of U.S. territories, where tourism has already decreased and several communities are still struggling from the impacts of natural disasters that have decreased housing availability and health care infrastructure. That piece, available at https://bit.ly/39mimTx, highlights the story of a couple in southern Puerto Rico who lost their home in the recent spate of earthquakes, is now expecting a child, and is facing the outbreak with few social service or economic prospects.

“The important thing for our colleagues, and the wider public, to consider is that these expectant parents are not just unlucky,” Grijalva and Sablan write. “Their circumstances would be much more bearable with a functional federal disaster response and adequate support for Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories.”

Grijalva said today that Congress should extend similar consideration to the millions of Americans on the U.S. mainland who live in similar circumstances.

“This pandemic is showing the many cracks in our nation’s ability to take care of its own people, and those failures were already glaring in Indian Country and the U.S. territories before the virus reached our shores,” Grijalva said today. “This bill is a good first step in protecting public health and keeping families afloat in the middle of an economic crisis. The next bill we pass needs to do more than keep our heads above water for a few more months – it needs to put our country on a path to ending the health and economic disparities we can no longer take for granted. Allowing millions of Americans to live in poverty, with no meaningful health care, has been a policy choice, not a necessity, and the bill has come due. It’s time for Congress to put human quality of life ahead of corporate insistence on low wages and weak benefits from now on.”

“This package sets aside over $10 billion in desperately needed funds for Tribes, the Indian Health Service, and urban Indian organizations. This is a positive first step towards immediately increasing health care capacity in Indian Country and ensuring Tribal governments can continue to provide essential services during this pandemic,” Gallego said today. “However, there is more that needs to be done. Tribal communities remain at higher risk of severe cases of COVID-19 with higher rates of pre-existing conditions and less access to running water, food, critical health care, and other necessities than the American public. Tribally owned businesses that reinvest directly in their communities have been shuttered across the nation. That’s why the federal government must make every effort to make this money available immediately, without the delays we’ve seen with past aid, and why we must commit to ensuring that Indian Country is also not left out of further relief efforts.”

“No community should be left behind during this pandemic, but it was an all-out fight with the Administration and Republicans in the Senate to ensure Tribes, urban Indian organizations, and tribal organization have the resources they need to keep Native American communities healthy and supported economically,” Haaland said today. “We fought for it every step of the way, especially the $8 billion for Tribes in the relief package to ensure Native Americans have the same access to health care resources and economic support as other governments.”#

A breakdown of the bill’s impacts in the Committee’s jurisdiction is included below.

Health Aid to Indian Country and U.S. Territories

Coronavirus in Indian Country 

The bill establishes an $8 billion relief Coronavirus Relief Fund at the Department of Treasury for tribal governments and tribally-owned entities of those governments to use for expenditures incurred due to the COVID-19 public health emergency in the face of revenue declines. 

Tribal Health 

The bill provides $1.032 billion to the Indian Health Service (IHS) in critically needed resources to support the tribal health system during the pandemic, including expanded support for medical services, equipment, supplies and public health education for IHS direct service, tribally operated and urban Indian health care facilities; expanded funding for purchased/referred care; and new investments for telehealth services, electronic health records improvement, and expanded disease surveillance by tribal epidemiology centers. 

The bill also extends the Special Diabetes Program for Indians mandatory authorization at FY2020 levels ($150 million per year) through November 2020. 

Tribal Governments 

$453 million is included for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), in order to provide aid to tribal governments; support welfare assistance and social service programs, including assistance to tribal members affected by the coronavirus crisis; expand public safety and emergency response capabilities; increase BIA capacity for teleworking so the agency is better prepared to assist tribes; and meet increased staffing and overtime costs. 

Between $70-96 million is also provided for Indian Child Care Development Block Grants to help defray the costs of COVID-19 response, including for continued payments to child care providers during center closures and to provide emergency child care for health care workers, emergency responders, and other COVID-19 “front line” workers. 

Tribes will also be eligible for the Small Business Act Section 7(a) Paycheck Protection Program, which will provide 100% federal loan guarantees up to $10 million to cover costs like employee salaries, paid sick leave/medical leave, mortgages/rents, and employee health insurance premiums. 

Additionally, the bill allows Indian tribes to be reimbursed for half their incurred unemployment benefit costs through December 31, 2020. 

Tribal Education 

$69 million is provided to the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) for response needs at BIE-funded schools, including staffing, transportation, telework, and cleaning activities and assistance for tribal colleges and universities across the country to help respond to the crisis. It also authorizes the Department of Education to waive provisions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, except civil rights laws, that are necessary and appropriate due to the COVID-19 declaration of disaster for all BIE schools. 

Tribal Housing 

The bill provides $200 million for the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHADSA) Block Grant program with a formula designed to assist Tribally Designated Housing Entities most in need of funding related to COVID-19 response. An additional $100 million is included for Indian Community Development Block Grants to respond to COVID-19 in tribal communities. 

Tribal Food Assistance 

$100 million is included for the Food Distribution Program for Indian Reservations, which provides USDA commodity foods to low-income households, including the elderly, living on Indian reservations. The bill also provides $20 million for the delivery of nutrition services to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiian elders through the Older Americans Act Tribal Nutrition program. 

U.S. Territories 

The bill takes the positive step of treating U.S. Territories as states in key provisions, including the DHS Disaster Relief Fund totaling $45 billion and CDC-wide activities totaling $4.3 billion. 

Coronavirus Relief Fund for the District of Columbia and U.S. Territories 

$3 billion are secured for making payments to the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), and Guam. 

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for U.S. Territories 

The bill provides $200 million for nutritional assistance grants to Puerto Rico, CNMI, and American Samoa. 

While the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that nutritional assistance needs in Puerto Rico as a result of this emergency will be around $1.27 billion, Grijalva said, the down payment on that need is a good first step. 

Insular Affairs Assistance to U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States 

The bill provides $55 million to DOI to assist U.S. Territories and Freely Associated States to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus. 

Public Lands 

The package includes approximately $150 million for DOI agencies and $70 million for the U.S. Forest Service to directly respond to the outbreak. This money will go to bolster operations accounts, purchase equipment for cleaning facilities, support relevant law enforcement activities, support scientific research, and enhance telework capacity, with robust congressional oversight to ensure the administration uses the funds properly.  

The package does not include measures to support businesses or other stakeholders that rely on access to public lands or facilities. Grijalva said future relief bills should include assistance for the Public Land Corps, national parks partner groups, the outdoor industry, and the hospitality and tourism industry, including outfitters and guides, whose livelihoods rely on continuous access to public lands. Our public lands are proven job creators and we need to ensure that access, conservation, restoration, and maintenance are part of future economic recovery efforts. 

Fisheries 

The bill includes $300 million for fisheries disasters. The funding will benefit tribes, commercial for-hire fishermen, and aquaculture businesses who have suffered economic losses as a result of the pandemic.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee - Grijalva logo
(Image: Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee)
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