Legislation To Remove Health Data Barriers, Ensure Health Justice For Tribal Communities

Washington, D.C.  U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) led the House passage of the Tribal Health Data Improvement Act that he introduced alongside Congressman Greg Gianforte (R-MT). The legislation, which is endorsed by the National Indian Health Board and the American Academy of Pediatrics, would reaffirm that Tribal public health authorities are legally entitled access to public health data like any state or local health department.

Video of Luján’s floor speech is available here.

Following a POLITICO report that the federal government was withholding life-saving information from Tribal health authorities, Assistant Speaker Luján secured a commitment from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield that the CDC would share COVID-19 data with all 12 Tribal Epidemiology Centers (TECs). The data includes information regarding COVID-19 testing, positive case numbers, contact tracing, and more. Despite this progress, TECs still face barriers accessing other data sets from the CDC, other federal agencies, and state health departments.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has tragically taken the lives of more than 200,000 people across our nation, and Tribal communities have been particularly hard hit. The House of Representatives took important action today to tear down health data barriers, live up to the federal government’s legal responsibility, and help save lives across Tribal communities,” said Assistant Speaker Luján. “Tribal leaders and TECs are working hard to protect the health and well-being of their communities, and it’s critical that the federal government not impede their work by denying them life-saving public health data available to other health authorities.”

The National Indian Health Board CEO, Stacy A. Bohlen, expressed support for the bill following its introduction:

“The National Indian Health Board strongly supports the Tribal Health Data Improvement Act. Tribal Nations, as sovereign governments, are inherent public health authorities providing vital public health programs and services to their citizens and communities. By statute, Tribal Epidemiology Centers (TECs) are also public health authorities, and play a critical role in assisting Tribal governments and Tribal organizations in public health activities. Yet for years, both Tribes and TECs have faced immense challenges in accessing federal and state health data systems necessary to engage in foundational public health work. NIHB applauds Representatives Gianforte and Luján for leading the Tribal Health Data Improvement Act. This bill will help ensure Tribes and TECs have direct access to federal healthcare and public health surveillance systems, and require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to work directly with Tribes to address widespread misclassification and undersampling of American Indians and Alaska Natives on birth and death records, and in public health surveillance systems,” said Bohlen.