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Panel: COVID-19 Carries "Tsunami Impact" For Indigenous Communities

Protect our Care Montana holds a virtual roundtable regarding COVID-19 impacts to Indigenous communities in Montana Sept. 23, 2020. Clockwise from top left: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Senior Advisor for Tribal Affairs Damion Killsback, state Rep. Barbara Bessette, former state Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Anna Whiting Sorrell and state Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy.

Community leaders reviewed COVID-19’s disproportionate impact to Indigenous people across Montana during a virtual roundtable on Sept. 23. They also considered ways to improve health outcomes among tribal members.

Democratic state Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency lamented the rise of COVID-19 cases in tribal communities after Montana began reopening in June, during the panel discussion hosted by Protect our Care Montana

“It’s a tsunami impact upon our people across the nation,” Peregoy said.

Native Americans make up less than seven percent of Montana’s population. Yet they comprise 37 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19, according to the latest analysis from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Dr. Damion Killsback is senior advisor for tribal affairs with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He says the novel coronavirus is magnifying economic and social factors that make Indigenous communities vulnerable to health risks, like poor access to health care, housing, education and healthy food.

Killsback says tribal and federal leadership should work together on emergency preparedness plans to address coronavirus impacts while maintaining health system capacity for non-COVID-19 patients. He says services for tribal nations are lacking.

“Federal response may or may not be timely, or may be delayed depending on access to resources,” Killsback said.

Former state health department Director Anna Whiting Sorrell says preserving and improving the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most important means to protect Indigenous health care.

The law led to the expansion of Medicaid in Montana, which covers eight percent of the state’s population. The federal government is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the ACA, a possibility the New York Times reports became more likely with the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“If it were to be repealed now it would be devastating to Indian people all across the country and certainly here in Montana,” Sorrell said.

Sorrell says officials need to build stronger bridges between tribal, state and federal governments to maximize Indian Health Service funding. She says more emphasis should also be placed on preventative care to avoid health emergencies and late stage disease diagnoses.

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