U.S. SENATE –Today the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs heard testimony about the critical importance of supporting tribal nations. In its oversight hearing on the Administration’s budget for the coming fiscal year, Committee Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT) said he was encouraged by the proposed increases while acknowledging that these are difficult financial times.
“Tribes have not recovered from sequestration that resulted in across-the-board cuts to all federal programs that tribes are reliant upon. Nowhere was this more impactful than to the Indian Health Services, where due to sequestration, continuing resolutions, and the 16 day government shutdown – healthcare to Indian people was jeopardized,” said Tester.
The President’s FY 2015 budget request for the Department of the Interior Indian Affairs programs totals $2.6 billion, which is $33.6 million more than this year. The IHS budget request for 2015 is $4.6 billion, an increase of $200 million over the current level.
The Committee heard testimony from Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn and Acting Director of the Indian Health Service (IHS), Dr. Yvette Roubideaux. Tribal leaders representing the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Health Board also testified.
“Despite the budgetary constraints we face, there are some positive highlights in the President’s fiscal year 2015 budget request. The Committee is pleased that the Administration finally understands its legal obligation to fully fund Contract Support Costs for the both the Indian Health Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Tester said. “I am particularly encouraged by the $11 million increase for social services and job training to support an initiative to provide a comprehensive and integrated approach to address the problems of violence, poverty, and substance abuse.”
Aaron Payment, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) Midwest Vice President and Chairman of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, noted that critical programs are still not reaching adequate levels. “Shrinking resources due to sequestration and the Budget Control Act have adversely affected tribes’ ability to meet the needs of their communities. An honorable budget for Indian Country will empower tribes so they can provide their people with good health care, quality education, decent and adequate housing, and public safety,” Payment noted.
Commenting on funding for health programs Payment said, “NCAI appreciates that the IHS has finally seen some of the most significant budget increases in decades with a historical increase of 32 percent during the past six years. Yet, funding for Indian health care services and programs still falls significantly short of what is required to bring health parity to Indian health in line with other federal healthcare programs.”
On education, Payment noted, “Of the over 600,000 American Indian/Alaska Native students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, most attend public schools. But many of these schools do not have a reliable tax base and disproportionately rely on Impact Aid funding, which makes up for the lack of funding on and near reservations and military bases.” Payment expressed concern that Native students still do not have the same education outcomes as their peers.
Andrew Joseph Jr. the Chairman of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, spoke about the critical need for adequate health care funding. “Clearly, more must be done to alleviate these health risks for our people and to fulfill the trust obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives,” Joseph Jr. said. “Despite the historic increases that Congress has given to the IHS budget over the last several years, funding discrepancies unambiguously remain. The First People of this nation should not be last when it comes to health.”
Tester, who also serves on the Appropriations Committee pledges to fight for increased resources for underfunded programs.