Courtesy Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Indian Health Service Principal Deputy Director Mary Smith outlined two legislative initiatives IHS has in the works, one to permanently reauthorize the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, the other to make the definition of the word “Indian” in the Affordable Care Act consistent with the definition used by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Is It Enough? Senate Committee Reviews Indian Country Budget

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs didn’t hear much that was surprising during a March 9 oversight hearing on President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal. And that was disappointing.

Senators asked most of the witnesses the simple question, “Is that enough money?” Witnesses answered with some variation on the statement that this administration has been more responsive to needs in Indian country than have previous regimes.

But no one gave the short answer senators have been hearing in oversight hearings, be they on Justice, or Education, or Health care, for years – “No, this does not begin to be enough money to meet the federal government’s trust and treaty obligations to the country’s 567 federally-recognized tribes.”

Despite the 5 percent increase over last year’s enacted funding in this budget, Larry Roberts, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, noted that tribes still have not recovered the dollars they lost to sequestration. “There are still additional needs in Indian country,” he said.

National Congress of American Indians Secretary Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, noted that tribal leaders have an immediate opportunity to comment on what those needs are. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is working on an update to the 2003 report, “A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country.” The public may submit comments to qccomments@usccr.gov through March 20 or visit usccr.gov.

Bureau of Indian Affairs

The budget proposal for the BIA and the Bureau of Indian Education includes a $137.6 million increase over 2016, for a total of $2.9 billion.

Roberts, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, told the committee that this budget includes full funding for contract support costs and a proposal to make full funding mandatory beginning in 2018. Other budget items include expanding the Tiwahe Initiative; $1.8 million to pilot tribal court systems in PL280 states; $1.1 billion for Indian education and the reorganization of the BIE, which includes turning BIE schools over to tribal control; and $138.3 million for school repair and construction.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., expressed concern about the way school construction priorities are set, saying that the process is a mystery. “We need predictability telling tribes when — or if ever – their project will get funded,” she said. Roberts said the schools on the 2004 school list are almost completed and the agency is now selecting schools for the 2016 list. In response to a question from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., Roberts said a decision about the replacement of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school should be available within 30 days. “We need a lot more resources for school construction,” Roberts added.

The budget includes an additional $15.1 million over 2016 funding to help tribes prepare for the impacts of climate change and a total of $215.5 million for tribal water rights settlements.

An additional $4 million would be available to continue development of the Native American One-Stop website. SCIA Vice Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., questioned whether BIA was creating a website to which tribes would not have access for lack of broadband infrastructure. Roberts said that the president’s budget supports more broadband access at BIE schools and noted that the One-Stop site does not require visitors have the highest broadband capability.

RELATED: Native One-Stop Portal Makes Finding Benefits Easier

Indian Health Service

Despite being on the job for only a week, IHS Principal Deputy Director Mary Smith, Cherokee Nation, faced some tough questions, many based on the SCIA’s February 25 oversight hearing on IHS facilities in the Great Plains.

RELATED: Senator Alleges Malpractice at IHS Hospitals

Smith said IHS is “committed to a future of quality, leadership and accountability,” and noted that the president’s budget increases IHS funding to $6.6 billion, which if enacted would represent a 53 percent increase since 2008. The budget includes funding to expand behavioral and mental health services; to improve health care quality, capacity, and workforce; to support self-determination by fully funding contract support costs; and to address critical health care facilities infrastructure needs, she said.

IHS is working to improve quality at the three hospitals in the Great Plains area and has created a new position to focus on quality of care at IHS facilities, said Smith. She identified staffing as a major problem. In the short term, IHS is deploying Public Health Service officers to the hospitals while negotiating with contractors to manage emergency room services and working on a long-term strategy for permanent hires. Just this week, she said, a pay package was approved that would give ER doctors $300,000 in annual salary to help make IHS facilities more competitive with other employers.

Smith said it was important to encourage tribal members who were eligible to enroll in Medicaid and Medicare. Enrollment would add more dollars for health care for American Indian and Alaska Native populations and would allow individuals more choices about where to get their care, she said.

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., brought up the issue of penalties that will be assessed on tribes who do not meet the employer mandate included in the Affordable Care Act. Payment said the mandate should be put on hold until the unintended consequences could be fully analyzed. He estimated that left in place it could cost Indian country as much as $50 million.

Justice

Karol Mason, assistant attorney general at the DOJ Office of Justice Programs, said the president’s budget proposal requests $420 million in total resources to address public safety in Indian country, which “represents a historic level of funding for tribal communities.”

She said DOJ has awarded over 1,400 CTAS (Coordinated Tribal Assistance Solicitation) grants totaling more than $620 million to hundreds of tribal communities.

RELATED: Tribal Law and Order Act Five Years Later: What Works and What Doesn’t

Mason noted that OJP’s National Institute of Justice is expected to release a new study about violence against AI/AN women and men in April. “The report provides estimates of sexual violence, physical violence by intimate partners, stalking and psychological aggression by intimate partners,” she said. NIJ is also working on a baseline study of violence against AI/AN women, due out in 2017.

When asked by Tester whether the $5 million in the budget for the Violence Against Women Act implementation would be adequate, Mason hesitated and then said, “We will make it adequate.”

Housing

HUD’s Lourdes Castro Ramirez, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Public & Indian Housing, said HUD has requested $700 million, a $50-million increase, for the Indian Housing Block Grant program, the backbone of NAHASDA, and an increase for the Indian Home Loan Guarantee program, which she supports expanding to include non-reservation housing. She said the department strongly backs reauthorization of NAHASDA.

HUD is working on an “Assessment of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian Housing Needs.” Preliminary results released in 2014 indicated severe overcrowding in Indian country. Ramirez noted that tribes were being compelled to use more and more IHBG dollars to rehab existing housing.

RELATED: Tribes Decide How to Spend Indian Housing Block Grants; A Legacy of Sovereignty Act

At the end of the hearing, Franken called on his colleagues to go to their caucuses and “tell them what’s happening in Indian country” as the only way to get more desperately needed resources for tribes.

RELATED: Across the Board Increases for Obama’s Indian Country Budget

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Is It Enough? Senate Committee Reviews Indian Country Budget

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