WASHINGTON, D.C.—Reps. Greg Stanton, D-Ariz., and David Joyce, R-Ohio, today introduced the Stronger Engagement for Indian Health Needs Act, which would elevate the current role of the Indian Health Service Director to Assistant Secretary for Indian Health within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), with the goal of improving Native American health outcomes.

Specifically, the Senate-confirmed position will bring greater attention within the Administration to addressing the health care status and needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“The federal government has a trust obligation to provide quality health care to Tribal members, care that best fits their cultural and health needs,” Stanton said. “Our bill does what should’ve been done years ago—elevates and centers native voices when it comes to making federal policy that affects American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

“I’m proud to join Congressman Stanton in introducing the Stronger Engagement for Indian Health Needs Act,” Joyce said. “We know that federal American Indian and Alaska Native health programs continue to be plagued by challenges, and that many who rely on these services continue to experience health disparities and face barriers accessing care. By elevating the Indian Health Service Director position to Assistant Secretary for Indian Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this bipartisan bill represents an important step as we seek to fulfill the federal government’s sacred trust and treaty obligations to American Indians and Alaska Natives.”

The Assistant Secretary would work to enhance the government-to-government relationship between Indian tribes and the United States, increase access and collaboration among agencies within HHS as Indian health policy and budgets are developed, bring much needed parity to Indian health care needs, and ensure these issues are a priority in current and future administrations.

The late Sen. John McCain first championed the proposal, introducing legislation in the mid-1990s. It passed the Senate four times, but died in the House. The issue has not been revisited since 2010, when efforts were made to include it as part of the Affordable Care Act. Stanton and Joyce introduced similar legislation last Congress.

Leading Native American advocacy groups—including the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Health Board, and National Council of Urban Indian Health—already support the bipartisan effort.

“It is time for the government to recognize the importance of Indian health and uphold the federal trust responsibility to provide healthcare to all Native people. The elevation of the IHS Director to Assistant Secretary will uplift our voices in the Administration and is a critical step in reaching health equity in Indian country. We thank Representatives Greg Stanton and David Joyce for their commitment to improving health outcomes for Native people, and we urge Congressional leaders to support this vital legislation,” Walter Murillo, a member of the Choctaw Nation, said. Murillo is President-elect of National Council of Urban Indian Health and Chief Executive Officer of Native Health, based in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Representation at the highest levels of government is not only a reaffirmation of the federal trust responsibility with respect to Indian health care, but as we have seen time and again, it is also critical to the federal government serving the broad needs of Indian Country in a meaningful and beneficial manner,” Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

Chairman of the National Indian Health Board, William Smith, praised the bill’s introduction as “a clear statement prioritizing Indian health care.” He further stated that “elevating the Indian Health Service leadership and authority will amplify the voice and credibility needed to ensure Indian health care receives appropriate attention and support.  It is a necessary step in fulfilling the United States trust responsibility and treaty obligations to Tribal nations for health care.  The NIHB stands ready to help support and advance this important legislation.”

Stacy Bohlen, Chief Executive Officer of the NIHB, remarked that “the elevation of the IHS Director to an Assistant Secretary has been a long-standing priority for the NIHB and Tribal nations.” She added that “the Indian Health Service is the primary agency for fulfilling the United States’ trust responsibility and treaty obligation for health care to Tribal nations.  The agency leader, as lead advocate for Indian health within the federal government, must have the requisite position, status, and authority to carry out these solemn responsibilities and obligations for Indian health care.  We look forward to working with Congress and the Administration in getting this legislation finally passed and signed into law.”