By The Office of
Congressman Raul Ruiz

On Sept. 26, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr., NJ-06, and Rep. Raul Ruiz, M.D., D-Palm Desert, 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.
“Tribal communities across the nation face increasingly stark health disparities and the federal government has a long way to go to improve health care and fulfill their trust responsibility to native populations,” said Ruiz. “I am honored to work with Chairman Pallone to introduce these bills that will invest to correct the public health crisis afflicting Indian Country and establish new programs to address behavioral health. I am determined to bring health equity to tribes and spur the next generation of native youth to become health care professionals.”
“The health disparities affecting tribal communities are simply unacceptable,” 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. I thank Congressman Ruiz for his leadership on this important issue.”
“Indian Country was largely left behind during the nation’s development of its public health infrastructure. As a result, many tribes lack basic public health resources and capacity, contributing to the lower quality of health and higher health disparities impacting American Indians and Alaska Natives,” said Victoria Kitcheyan, National Indian Health Board (NIHB) chair and Great Plains area representative. “Similarly, behavioral health resources to address ongoing epidemics such as substance use, suicide, and others are severely underfunded in tribal communities. The NIHB commends Chairman Pallone and Representative Ruiz for reintroducing legislation that would ensure critical public health and behavioral health dollars reach tribal governments directly, and looks forward to working in a bipartisan fashion to secure enactment.”
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. Native American communities are experiencing a mental health and substance abuse crisis, particularly among young people. What’s more, some Native Americans 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.
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. Native communities struggle 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.