H.R. 5221, known as the Urban Indian Health Confer Act, passed in the US House on Nov. 2 by a vote of 406 to 17 and has been referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs following two readings in the Senate.
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The bill, co-sponsored by Alaska Congressman Don Young (R – At Large), will require the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to confer with urban Indian organizations (UIOs) when deliberating topics concerning health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives living in urban areas.
Young expressed the need for increased communication:
“Urban Indian health organizations play a crucial role in providing health care services to Indigenous people, including those in Alaska. The COVID-19 pandemic shined a spotlight on the need for open communication channels between federal agencies as we respond to public health emergencies.”
According to a press release from the Congressman, the Indian Health Service is the only federal body required to confer with urban Indian organizations. The vast majority of Indigenous Americans, however, live and receive health care services in urban areas that are outside of tribal jurisdictions.
The release claims the lack of communication between HHS and UIOs has impacted vaccine rollouts for Alaska’s American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations.
Data tells a similar story. In a COVID case dashboard by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the AI/AN populations had the second highest percentage of cumulative cases at 23%. Just above is the white population at 34%. AI/AN populations, however, make up just 15.6% of the total population in the state, as compared to 65.3% for the white population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Walter Murillo, president of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, applauded the federal government’s efforts.
“Establishing proper urban confer policies across all HHS agencies has been long overdue and exacerbated amid the current public health crisis ravaging Indian Country. We welcome the federal government’s effort to further fulfill their trust and treaty obligation for all American Indians and Alaska Natives, including those residing in urban areas.”