July 02, 2020

In Indian Affairs Hearing, Udall Scrutinizes Barriers Impacting COVID-19 Response in Native Communities

WASHINGTON – Yesterday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined U.S. Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to convene an oversight and legislative hearing entitled “Evaluating the Response and Mitigation to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Native Communities.” 

“Over the last several months, our nation has faced a convergence of major and seemingly unprecedented challenges: a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and flagrant, systemic injustice,” Udall said in his opening statement. “In examining the federal response to these crises, it is clear that the administration ignored the warning signs. But, for Indian Country and other communities of color, the lack of federal public health preparedness and the resulting economic freefall were not unprecedented. In fact, they were predictable, and they were avoidable… For years, Tribal leaders, Native organizations, and witnesses have testified – before this very Committee – that federal policies and failures have exacerbated health disparities, economic barriers, and institutional inequities… That is why today’s hearing is so important – Congress and this Administration must take a good hard look in the mirror and see where we’re still falling short.”  

During the hearing’s first panel, Udall pressed Indian Health Service (IHS) Director Michael Weahkee to explain the circumstances under which IHS entered into a $3 million federal contract to procure one million KN95 respirator masks – thousands of which were determined to be substandard and not for medical use – for IHS hospitals serving the Navajo Nation in New Mexico and Arizona. Udall and several members of the Arizona and New Mexico Congressional Delegations sent a letter to IHS on the same subject, asking for a full report and answers to detailed questions.

“I understand that the IHS did not use the faulty masks, and – by a stroke of luck – none were actually distributed for use in IHS facilities. That does not take away from the fact that IHS potentially put patients and medical personnel in harm’s way by failing to do its due diligence. To make matters worse -- yet another report has surfaced, indicating that the contractor has refused to terminate the contract and has demanded his $3 million payment,” said Udall.

In response, Weahkee indicated that IHS did not pay the contractor for the masks in question and explained, “because of non-conformance of this particular vendor in meeting the needs of our PPE, we have the ability to send those supplies back.” However, Weahkee’s statements at the hearing contradict statements he made in a letter to Udall dated the day prior to the hearing wherein he acknowledged the contractor’s refusal to reacquire the faulty masks and his claim for payment, noting that “IHS is considering all its options, which may include potentially referring the matter to the Office of Inspector General.”

Udall continued, “Admiral, I expect a thorough response to my May 27th letter [on this issue] with written answers to all my questions.  A staff briefing is not enough… Will you commit to me to answer my questions in my May 27th letter to you”

“We do, sir,” Weahkee replied. 

In the second hearing panel, Udall asked National Indian Health Board Secretary Lisa Elgin to comment on the third-party revenue shortfalls facing IHS facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Just two weeks ago, Admiral Weahkee told the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee that the agency is experiencing third-party revenue shortfalls at 30-80 percent below collections this time last year and that it will take years to recoup those losses.  The House-passed HEROES Act allocated $1 billion to address revenue shortfalls.  But, this was back in mid-May.  Since then, COVID cases in Indian Country have only continued to increase, and the need is more likely higher than $1 billion.  We urge the Senate to increase the funding for the Tribes as you work on the next COVID relief package,” said Elgin.

Udall concluded by noting, “I think this has been a very important hearing.  We’ve had two panels, we’ve looked at oversight in a serious way, and I think it’s given us a lot of issues we should be working on.  Congress must do everything in its power to keep every IHS facility up and running during this pandemic.  I hope we can work in a bipartisan fashion to expeditiously enact provisions to close some of these policy loopholes and secure more direct funding for the Indian Health Service. 

At the hearing, the committee also received testimony on S.3650, the Coverage for Urban Indian Health Providers Act.  The bipartisan legislation, which Udall co-sponsors, will boost health resources for urban Indian health organizations as they respond to budget shortfalls and service demand increases related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The IHS testified in support of the bill.

A full copy of Udall’s prepared opening statement can be found below. 

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for calling today’s hearing. 

Over the last several months, our nation has faced a convergence of major and seemingly unprecedented challenges: a global pandemic, an economic crisis, and flagrant, systemic injustice.

In examining the federal response to these crises, it is clear that the administration ignored the warning signs. But, for Indian Country and other communities of color, the lack of federal public health preparedness and the resulting economic freefall were not unprecedented.  In fact, they were predictable.  And, they were avoidable. 

We know that—

- Native populations in the U.S. experienced morbidity and mortality rates four-times greater than non-- Native populations in previous pandemics; 
- Tribal economies were particularly vulnerable to economic shocks and downturns; and that
- In matters of housing, healthcare, education, and justice – American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians were too often left behind.

We know this, because, for years, Tribal leaders, Native organizations, and witnesses have testified -- before this very Committee -- that federal policies and failures have exacerbated health disparities, economic barriers, and institutional inequities.  

I understand that this is an uncomfortable truth for us to grapple with.  But, we in Congress should not be surprised by reports that the Indian Health Service, Tribes, and Urban Indian health clinics have faced challenges securing personal protective equipment and testing supplies, when we knew that they did not have access to the strategic national stockpile, and that they were excluded from most federal public health emergency preparedness planning. 

We should not be surprised by testimony that Indian Country has struggled to navigate the bureaucratic maze of COVID-19 programs – when we knew that many agencies had little to no meaningful engagement with Tribes prior to this pandemic. 

And, we should not be surprised that Tribes’ ability to access federal assistance and resources depends largely on how good their relationship is with their state government, which federal official they are working with, or which agency region they are located in.   Not when we knew that federal practices lack consistency and policies favor state-pass-through models.

I have been fighting alongside Tribes to address these very same issues since I first arrived in Congress.  Many of you on this Committee have been fighting right along with me.  But, as we have been so humbly reminded by this pandemic, there is much yet to be done.  

That is why today’s hearing is so important – Congress and this Administration must take a good hard look in the mirror and see where we’re still falling short.  

That includes the Treasury Department, which just barely got critical Tribal CARES Act funding out the door -- 50 days beyond the statutory deadline.  That’s twice as long as Congress intended, causing what a court determined to be “irreparable harm” to Tribal governments in their fight against the coronavirus. 

Whether it’s the IHS or Treasury, the administration must do better.  Admiral Weahkee and Administrator Fenton, I hope you will commit to taking the feedback you receive back to your Departments and working with your leadership to act on it.  And. I hope that this Committee can work together to address these statutory barriers and resource gaps for Native communities without further delay.

Senator Smith’s bill, which we are considering today, is an excellent example of the type of practical, bipartisan solution we should all be pushing.  This bill not only creates parity within the IHS system but also helps Urban Indian Health Programs reduce operating costs due to COVID-19 related budget shortfalls.  I’m proud to co-sponsor her work on this front. 

I will close by saying that – despite the challenges that remain before us – I am dedicated to standing with all American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.  And, I am hopeful that the Senate will be able to work together and replicate the historic wins we achieved for Native communities in the first set of coronavirus relief packages.  

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for this hearing.  And, thank you to our witnesses for joining us for this important discussion.