September 23, 2020

Udall Leads Indian Affairs Hearing on Legislation to Address Broadband, Health Care Access in Indian Country

Udall’s Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act and Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act on hearing agenda

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined committee chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene a legislative hearing on five bills, including the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act and the Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act.

The Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act, introduced by Udall along with U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), would accelerate the deployment of broadband services to Native communities by coordinating and improving the effectiveness of federal resources.

The Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act, introduced by U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Udall, would create a behavioral health program to help Tribes develop solutions that include culturally-appropriate efforts aimed at prevention, treatment, and recovery. The bill would create the Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians—the SBHPI—which would be modeled after the Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI). 

“My bill, the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act, would improve the deployment of broadband in Indian Country by shoring up broadband programs at the FCC and the USDA,” said Udall in his opening statement.  “It also establishes a pilot program for Tribes to permit rights-of-way for broadband deployment on Tribal lands and a Tribal Advisory Committee so that Congress can tailor legislation to truly meet Indian Country’s broadband needs.

“[The] Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act, which I am proud to support as a co-sponsor, would create a Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians to help Tribes access flexible resources to address their communities’ mental health needs. The severe lack of access to comprehensive culturally-competent behavioral and mental health services in Native communities is one of the many disparities that the current COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare. And this bill – which builds on the successful SDPI model – is an important tool we should work to provide Tribes as quickly as possible,” continued Udall.

All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Michael Chavarria and Hopi Nation Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma testified in support of both bills. 

Nuvangyamo stated, “Modeled after SDPI, [the Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act] would provide Tribes with critical resources to battle mental and behavioral health challenges in our communities. Further, [the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act] is needed now more than ever as we are relying heavily on broadband service during the ongoing pandemic.” 

Chavarria then stated, “The Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act would provide Pueblo members with the tools they need to plug into urgently needed behavioral and mental health services and stay afloat…The Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act contains numerous provisions that would help facilitate advancements in high-speed broadband deployment and access in Tribal communities like ours.”

Udall subsequently asked Chairman Chavarria how the broadband rights-of-way pilot program in the Bridging the Tribal Digital Divide Act would benefit New Mexico’s Pueblo communities, especially during a national health crisis when access to the internet is absolutely necessary.

“I believe the proposed legislation would benefit not just my Pueblo but all Tribal nations during the time of this pandemic and after,” responded Chavarria. “COVID-19 has brought a glaring light on all the existing technological infrastructure disparities affecting Indian Country. Our families lack home broadband, students lack individual computers or iPads, hospitals have insufficient networks, and entire communities lack fiber optic cables and wireless capabilities. The Right-of-Way Pilot Program proposed in your bill will assist us all in addressing each of these barriers by helping us lay the foundation we need for community-wide broadband access.”