When Senate Democrats narrowly passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package on Saturday, they also passed the U.S. government’s largest-ever investment in Native American programs.
The bill, which is expected to pass the House and be signed into law by President Joe Biden as soon as this week, includes more than $31.2 billion for tribal governments and Native communities. The money will go directly to helping American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians focus on economic recovery in their communities devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This historic funding is a down payment on the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native communities,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Since the start of the pandemic, Native American communities have been among the hardest hit by the virus. Compared with white people, Indigenous people are nearly twice as likely to be infected by COVID-19, more than three and a half times as likely to be hospitalized and more than twice as likely to die from the virus, according to Feb. 18 data provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Most of the money in the relief package targeted at Native communities, or roughly $20 billion of the $31.2 billion, will go straight to tribal governments to help them tackle COVID-19 and stabilize safety net programs.
More than $6 billion will go to Native health systems. That includes $2.3 billion for COVID-19 vaccines, testing and tracing at the Indian Health Service, along with another $2 billion for lost third-party medical billing reimbursements. IHS will also get $600 million for health facilities construction and sanitation programs, $500 million for clinical health services, $420 million for mental and behavioral health services, $140 million for improving health IT and telehealth access, and $10 million for potable water delivery.
More than $1.2 billion will go to tribal and Native Hawaiian housing programs under the Department of Housing & Urban Development.
More than $1.1 billion will go to Native education programs.
More than $1 billion will go Native families, in the form of tribal child care programs and assistance to tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grantees.
Roughly $900 million will go to Bureau of Indian Affairs programs; $600 million will go to Native communities’ economic and infrastructure investments; $20 million will go toward mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on Native languages; and $19 million will go toward combating domestic violence.
Navajo Nation was hit particularly hard by the pandemic in the early months. At one point, it had more coronavirus cases per capita on its reservation than any of the 50 U.S. states. In December, Navajo Nation leaders and medical professionals were sounding alarms about shortages of hospital beds, nurses and oxygen supplies as COVID-19 cases surged in the area.
The new Senate-passed relief package couldn’t come at a better time, said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, and it builds on previous federal aid that was vital for the tribe’s public health and economic recovery.
“The American Rescue Plan goes beyond the assistance that was provided through the previous CARES Act funds, which helped connect over 700 Navajo families to the electric grid, over 300 off-grid solar installations for homes, over 140 broadband improvement projects, water resources, relief for Navajo businesses and entrepreneurs, direct financial and food aid for tens of thousands of Navajo families, burial assistance for over 1,000 families that have lost loved ones due to COVID-19, and much more,” Nez said in a Saturday statement thanking Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) for supporting the bill.
“We stand ready to provide further support for our people,” added Nez, “and we ask Congress to support this important initiative to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.”
No Republicans in the Senate supported the COVID-19 relief bill, which provides $1,400 checks for most Americans, extends jobless aid, and provides money for vaccine distribution and financial relief for cities, schools, and small businesses struggling amid the pandemic. It’s not clear whether any Republicans in the House will support it.