Tester Pushes Indian Health Service Director to Improve Tribal Behavioral Health By Boosting Telehealth Services
Senator: “If you’re on the wrong side of the digital divide, you know that telehealth doesn’t work all that great”
At a recent Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Jon Tester pressed Indian Health Service (IHS) Director Rear Admiral Michael Weahkee on the state of behavioral health services in Indian Country, particularly in the light of a global pandemic that is disproportionately impacting Native communities and where broadband access often obstructs telehealth services.
Tester also discussed his Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act which creates an Indian behavioral health program to curb disproportionate rates of substance misuse and other behavioral health challenges in Indian Country. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted these disparities, especially when it comes to accessing telehealth in Native communities where reliable broadband access is often lacking.
“Native American communities often find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, and if you’re on the wrong side of the digital divide, you know that telehealth doesn’t work all that great,” said Tester. “Reliable telehealth is critical to behavioral health services—especially right now when Tribes are some of the hardest hit by coronavirus—and we need to be working to bring more tools into Indian Country so that folks struggling with substance misuse or serious mental health conditions can get the care and attention they need.”
Substance misuse and other behavioral health challenges disproportionately impact Native American communities where serious mental health conditions are seen at rates 1.6 times higher than the national average. Additionally, Native youth experience the highest rates of youth suicide and depression in the country and Native American communities are often unable to access the comprehensive, community-designated, culturally-competent services needed to address these issues.
Tester’s Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act works to bring more tools into Indian Country to improve behavioral health services by:
- Creating a Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians (SBHPI) to help Tribes access resources to address mental health needs and substance use disorders in their communities;
- Allowing Tribes to develop solutions that incorporate traditional and cultural practices into evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs;
- Requiring robust programmatic accountability through the development of grant reporting requirements in consultation with Tribes; and
- Authorizing $150 million in mandatory funding for these efforts.
As the former chairman and longtime member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Tester has worked tirelessly to improve health care systems in Indian Country, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. He recently introduced his bipartisan Tribal Health Data Improvement Act to provide Tribes with more access to public health data, and he secured $1 million in grant funding to help fight opioid use disorder in Big Horn, Rosebud, and Custer Counties. He also recently pushed IHS Director Weahkee to strengthen the COVID-19 response in Indian Country as the Trump Administration continues its push to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.
Watch Tester’s questioning of Director Weahkee HERE.