Tester Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Increase Tribes’ Access to Public Health Data

Senator’s Tribal Health Data Improvement Act will address challenges Tribes face to access public health data, bolster relations with CDC

As part of his ongoing efforts to work with Montana Tribal communities to improve public health in Indian Country, U.S. Senator Jon Tester today introduced his bipartisan Tribal Health Data Improvement Act to help ensure that Montana Tribes are better able to access public health data to keep their communities safe and healthy.

Tester’s legislation would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to give Tribes direct access to public health data and direct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to strengthen relations with Tribes and Tribal Epidemiology Centers (TECs) in order to improve accuracy of health data. Additionally, the legislation encourages data sharing agreements between states and Tribes/TECs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear as crystal that it’s critical for Native American communities to be able to easily access public health data in order to keep families safe and healthy,” said Tester. “This bipartisan bill will help Tribes fight health conditions that are disproportionately impacting their communities—including coronavirus—by ensuring they are no longer denied access to the public health data they need, all while bolstering the quality of data by improving collaboration with state governments and the CDC.”

Native American communities often face glaring disparities across many health conditions such as diabetes, cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, and, more recently, coronavirus. Despite these health inequities, public health data systems at the Federal, state, and local levels indicate high levels of misclassification and undersampling of these communities, and Tribes additionally face significant challenges in accessing this public health data to correct these discrepancies.

Under federal law, Tribal governments and TECs are designated as “public health authorities,” allowing them to access public health tracking data at the Federal, state, and local levels. However, Tribes are routinely denied access to health data systems, limiting their ability to exercise their public health authority and address issues in data equality. They also have difficulty accessing CDC data to carry out their duties as sovereign nations, and over the course of the last year, were disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

Tester’s Tribal Health Data Improvement Act would specifically:

  • Require the HHS to give direct access to public health data to Tribes, the Indian Health Service (IHS), and TECs
  • Require the CDC to develop guidance for states and local health agencies on improving the quality and accuracy of birth and death record data for American Indians/Alaska Natives
  • Require the CDC to enter into cooperative agreements with Tribes, Tribal organizations, urban Indian organizations, and TECs to address misclassification and undersampling of American Indians/Alaska Natives on birth/death records and in health care/public health surveillance systems
  • Encourage states to enter into data sharing agreements with Tribes and TECs to improve access to public health data

Over the last year, Tester has worked closely with Montana Tribes to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and improve public health in Indian Country. He worked to include more than $31.2 billion for Tribal COVID response, vaccine distribution, and emergency housing and social services in Indian Country as part of the American Rescue Plan, and he pushed to include more than $10 billion for Indian Country in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.