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Remarks to the Secretary's Tribal Advisory Committee

Eric D. Hargan
Tribal Leadership Representatives
February 6, 2020
Washington, D.C.

We’re looking forward to a lot of action on issues relevant to tribes this coming year, and I’m looking forward to what 2020 will hold.

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, everyone. It’s great to be with you again to discuss how we can better partner with you to enhance the health and well-being of our tribal communities.

On behalf of Secretary Azar, I welcome you to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Normally, I like to address the STAC near the end of the meeting. This allows you to hear from our leaders across HHS and then bring to me any remaining questions or concerns you may have. Since I have to kick things off today, I want to make sure that each of you know that we’re available to you for follow-up questions of any kind—through IEA, through Admiral Weahkee, and through our other tribal contacts in the operating divisions. Soon you will hear from IEA Director Laura Trueman and she will introduce new members of her team who work with Stacey. So, please don’t hesitate to reach out to them if you have any follow-up questions or concerns.

I’m also glad that you’ll have the chance today to hear from Admiral Giroir, our Assistant Secretary for Health, the Secretary’s senior advisor for opioid and mental health policy, and point person for our initiative to end the HIV epidemic as well. He’ll be able to provide his expert perspective on these public health issues, which I know disproportionately impact American Indians and Alaska Natives. The perspectives of tribal communities have been a vital piece of our efforts to tackle these significant public health challenges, so I know you’ll benefit from speaking with Admiral Giroir.

I would be remiss if I also didn’t mention that Admiral Giroir also heads the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and has been an extremely strong supporter of the Commissioned Corps’ work. A stronger Commissioned Corps means the Corps can make even more valuable contributions to IHS and to tribal health generally, and we want to ensure that using the Commissioned Corps as a way to fill in gaps across the health system isn’t disruptive for the IHS facilities relying on Commissioned Corps officers.

I also want to briefly discuss another public health topic that is on the minds of many Americans: the novel coronavirus outbreak in China.

Last Friday, Secretary Azar declared a public health emergency in the United States regarding the outbreak, as part of our proactive efforts to prepare and respond. There are currently 12 confirmed cases in the United States, and we expect there could be more to come.

As Secretary Azar explained, President Trump has implemented a number of prudent, targeted actions regarding Americans who have recently traveled to China, which will help decrease the pressure on public health officials and health systems screening for the virus, expedite the processing of U.S. citizens and permanent residents returning from China, and ensure resources are focused on the health and safety of the American people.

While there remains a lot we still don’t know about this virus, we’re working around the clock to gain a better understanding so we can help stop the outbreak in its tracks. We have made incredible progress in just the past month. For instance, the CDC wasted no time in creating and deploying diagnostic testing for the virus, and, thanks to an emergency use authorization from FDA, that test is now being deployed for use outside of the CDC.

As we’ve emphasized, although the coronavirus represents a serious public health threat, the risk to the American public remains low at this time, and we’re working hard to keep it that way.

In that work, we’ve already benefited tremendously from the dedication of America’s healthcare providers and public health workers: physicians, nurses, and other professionals, hospital administrators, and state and local health departments, including those in tribal communities. This dedication is vital to the layered approach we have to protecting all Americans, and we will work closely with tribal healthcare workers and tribal leaders as necessary.

As many of you know, President Trump’s annual budget will be released soon. Last year, we were proud to propose significant investments for IHS in the President’s budget, and we were pleased to see Congress increase IHS funding in response, providing $6 billion in discretionary funding for IHS, which is $243 million above FY 2019.

As part of demonstrating our commitment to a strong government-to-government relationship with the tribes, I want to acknowledge that we know some tribal leaders had concerns about the recent opportunity that CMS announced for states to apply for new flexibility as part of a Medicaid block grant. In laying out that opportunity, we included a number of important protections for Medicaid beneficiaries who are members of tribes, which we arrived at thanks to a useful, constructive dialogue on the issue. We recognize how important Medicaid is to IHS and tribal healthcare. The CMS announcement is an opportunity for states to make the Medicaid program work better for all stakeholders, and we will continue to listen to your feedback on this front.

We’re looking forward to a lot of action on issues relevant to tribes this coming year, and I’m looking forward to what 2020 will hold.

One thing in particular we at HHS are proud to support is President Trump’s executive order establishing Operation Lady Justice – an interagency task force charged with developing an aggressive, government-wide strategy to address the crisis of missing and murdered women and girls in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. The HHS effort will be led by the Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans, Jeannie Hovland. We have heard first-hand from tribal leaders and community members impacted by this crisis and look forward to working with you on such an important issue.

It’ll be good to visit Indian Country again in May for the next STAC meeting. We’re also aggressively pushing for Admiral Weahkee’s confirmation as IHS director, given that his leadership as Principal Deputy Director at IHS has been so exemplary.

I know you will be busy all day with the STAC today, but I wanted to mention to you that, in the Great Hall this afternoon, Secretary Azar will be delivering an update on all of HHS’s work this past year, and where we’re headed, to the whole department. If you’re interested, I encourage you to check out the annual report that HHS released today and look up his remarks or watch them once we’ve posted them on the YouTube page.

The speech and the report are intended not just for HHS employees, but also for all our stakeholders, including you, and they’ll give you a sense of priorities and initiatives we’re undertaking across HHS that may be of interest.

One particular point I’ll note is the Secretary’s emphasis on rural and maternal health. As I’m sure many of you know, these are serious challenges for tribal communities. Rural access to care is always a challenge, and American Indian and Alaska Native women are about three times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes as white women are. This is simply unacceptable. We want Indian Country to be full of strong, healthy mothers because their kids and communities depend on them. Those issues are going to be a major focus of this administration in the coming year.

We have been hosting Maternal Child Health roundtables around the country and at the end of this month we will be hosting one in South Dakota that will have tribal participation.

As you can tell, we have lots to discuss today, so thank you again for having me here and I look forward to our discussion.

Content created by Speechwriting and Editorial Division 
Content last reviewed on February 7, 2020