Ranking Member Pallone, Dr. Ruiz Introduce Bills to Reduce Tribal Health Disparities

September 8, 2017
Press Release
Legislation would create and expand health programs to foster healthier futures for native communities

Washington, D.C. – Today, Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-06) and Representative Raul Ruiz, M.D. (CA-36) introduced two bills to address health disparities in Native American communities. Far too many tribal members still do not have access to the health care they need to stay healthy, and far too many tribal communities don’t have the resources required to support a robust and comprehensive public health infrastructure. These bills work to address that gap and achieve healthier outcomes for native communities.

“The health disparities affecting tribal communities are simply unacceptable,” Ranking Member Pallone said. “These bills will help close the gap by increasing access to health care and providing dedicated resources to improve behavioral health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Native American communities are experiencing a mental health and substance abuse crisis, particularly among young people. What’s more, some American Indians and Alaska Natives have been denied benefits provided to Native Americans under the Affordable Care Act because the definition of “Indian” is inconsistent throughout the law. H.R.3704, the Native Health Access Improvement Act, establishes a Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians, modeled after the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, and makes the definition of “Indian” consistent throughout the Affordable Care Act.

“For far too long, the federal government has not adequately provided for the health of tribal nations, creating a public and mental health crisis that impacts Native Americans young and old, across the country. This is unacceptable,” said Dr. Ruiz. “I am honored to work with Ranking Member Pallone to introduce a package of bills that will, for the first time, directly invest in a tribal public health framework and create a special program to address the behavioral health crisis. The Native Health and Wellness Act in particular will remedy provider shortages by empowering native youth to become the next generation of tribal health care providers and invest in public health in Indian Country. Making whole these health disparities is a crucial part of upholding our trust responsibility to tribes and it’s the right thing to do.”

Indian country has struggled with a severe health care provider shortage, making it hard for tribal members to access care. Tribal regions also often lack a robust public health infrastructure because they have historically been left out of the traditional funding mechanisms that have instead gone to states and other local governments. H.R.3706, the Native Health and Wellness Act, creates a new grant program to recruit, train, and mentor native youth and young adults for careers in health care and establishes a new Public Health Block Grant program to address infrastructure needs for tribal communities.

“The National Indian Health Board (NIHB) is very pleased to see the introduction of this legislation,” said NIHB Executive Director Stacy A. Bohlen. “For too long, American Indians and Alaska Natives have experienced significant health disparities and this legislation will ensure that directed, sustained, funding reaches Tribal communities. Improving public health infrastructure and behavioral health resources along with growing health professionals in Indian Country are all top priorities for NIHB, and we look forward to working with the bill’s sponsors to move this legislation forward."

“NCAI is encouraged that these bills provide critical resources to address mental health and substance abuse issues in Indian Country, as well as make key investments in the next generation of Native health care professionals,” said NCAI Executive Director Jacqueline Pata.

Text of these bills can be found below:

            The Native Health Access Improvement Act

            The Native Health and Wellness Act