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Emergency coronavirus funds for American Indians languish in bureaucratic limbo

March 20, 2020

Topics: Quote of the Day

Tribes say they’ve been forgotten in Trump’s coronavirus response and are running dangerously low on medical supplies.

By Adam Cancryn
POLITICO, March 20, 2020

The Trump administration has held up $40 million in emergency aid Congress approved earlier this month to help American Indians combat the coronavirus — a delay that’s left tribal leaders across the nation frustrated and ill-equipped to respond to the fast-growing outbreak.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases among American Indians has risen in recent days, from four earlier this week to easily more than a dozen. The Navajo Nation has recorded cases 14 alone, and on Thursday, a Cherokee Nation citizen became the first person in Oklahoma to die from the virus just a day after testing positive.

The funding has languished in bureaucratic limbo for weeks, despite increasingly urgent pleas from tribal organizations desperate to stockpile essential supplies and keep health clinics operational. Federally run American Indian health facilities are well short on hospital beds and ventilators, some frontline clinics received fewer than a dozen coronavirus tests, and federal officials have already signaled there will be little in the way of reinforcements — telling tribal leaders that all they can send right now are expired respirators.

That’s fueled alarm throughout American Indian country and on Capitol Hill, where advocates warn the administration has done comparatively little to protect American Indians as it plans drastic action elsewhere to protect vulnerable populations and slow the virus’ spread.

Pressed further on IHS’ readiness, one IHS official characterized the agency as a “shoestring operation.” At another point, (chief medical officer Michael Toedt) downplayed the threat by telling staffers that “IHS believes this virus will be slower to reach Indian country,” according to a person on the call.

Tribes rely heavily on IHS facilities, which provide many health care services to American Indians and Alaska Natives at no cost under the federal government’s long-held trust responsibility. Over a quarter of the tribal population in the U.S. is uninsured, more than double the national rate.

In a survey published Tuesday by the National Indian Health Board, just 16 percent of its tribal leaders, providers and partners reported receiving federal resources of any form to aid the response. Even fewer — 4 percent — had received basic protective equipment.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

We took their lands and then…

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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