In the first congressional hearing at which Native members of Congress were present, Democratic representatives on Tuesday heard directly from Native American communities that are being devastated by the ongoing partial government shutdown, which this week became the longest in U.S. history.
Many groups — including veterans, TSA employees, and law enforcement — have been impacted with lapses in pay and shortages in key resources, but it has been particularly disastrous for Native communities that are supposed to receive a wide-range of federal services due to treaty obligations.
“These threats — I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Aaron Payment, chairman of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe and board member of the National Congress of American Indians.
“This is a crisis like we’ve never seen,” he added.
Speaking to Democratic members on the House Committee on Natural Resources, he and others outlined the many ways already vulnerable populations are hurt by the shutdown. An Indian Health Service (IHS) contractor, Native American Lifelines of Baltimore and Boston, can’t afford to pay for its patients’ insulin, antibiotics, blood pressure and thyroid medications; food deliveries through the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations Board have been stalled; and thousands of Bureau of Indian Affairs and IHS employees are furloughed and working without pay.
It was an emotional hearing, largely because — for many of the panelists, and the members of Congress hosting them — it was personal.
“I have family members who are using Vivitrol as medication-assisted treatment to prevent them from overdosing and from going to get fentanyl — this is really life threatening,” Payment said.
A particularly striking moment came when Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) — one of two of the first Native women elected to Congress in 2018 — thanked tribe leaders for their service.
“Thank you all so much for taking the time to be here today and for your amazing caring about the communities you serve — I’m just very grateful for your time here,” Haaland told panelists, holding back tears.
For the past several weeks, the shutdown has exacerbated a dire situation in which services are already under-funded.
Native American Lifelines, for example, received less than $1 million from IHS for its two facilities in major metropolitan areas — a mere $691 of which is dedicated to mental health, the executive director told representatives. The last time funds were distributed to the nonprofit was months ago, in September 2018.
“The money to operate our facility has effectively stopped coming in, but the patients have not stopped needing health care,” said Native American Lifelines executive director Kerry Hawk Lessard.
More broadly, the 41 nonprofits that contract with IHS through the Office of Urban Indian Health Programs receive an average of $700 per patient, given that it’s a single line-item in the budget, said Lessard.
The nonprofit’s behavioral health treatment and counseling has also been interrupted, which is especially concerning given that six clients have overdosed and, in the past two months, four of them have died.
“Those struggling now have nowhere to go. Substance abuse will continue to occur and so will the overdoses,” said Lessard.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations Board has furloughed employees. As a result, a Minnesota affiliate has one staff member handling day-to-day operations. Mary Greene Trottier said people who depend on their services — typically the elderly — have been calling to ask if they’re still in operation.
“Difficult to be reassuring when we only have funds until the end of January,” said Trottier, adding that food can’t leave the national warehouse after Jan. 31 if the shutdown continues.
This isn’t the first time Native communities have been impacted by government shutdowns. However, panelists noted that, this time, there is an unprecedented lack of communication with the Trump administration. Payment said the Obama administration called tribal leaders in advance of the 2013 government shutdown to develop a triage plan, but the Trump administration did not. Indeed, Native communities were given less than 24 hours notice. When IHS held a call last week with tribal leaders, government staff weren’t able to answer basic questions, like whether communities will be reimbursed, Payment told lawmakers.
Panelists offered lawmakers various solutions to this problem.
“This shutdown crystallizes the need for IHS funding to become mandatory … IHS should be funded through advanced appropriations, which would ensure the basic health services for tribes are uninterrupted,” said Payment.
This story has been updated to indicate that the hearing was the first at which two Native members of Congress were present.