‘Heartbreaking’: Hataalii lose out on CARES funding, vaccine priority
In a painful double whammy, last week Diné traditional practitioners learned during a president’s office online town hall that they were denied their allocated Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and that they were not eligible for the first priority COVID-19 vaccinations, as was previously announced.
On Dec. 16 , the Diné Hataałii Association said in a public statement that they never received $600,000 in CARES Act funding that was promised them through the $2 million set-aside to support traditional healers and faith-based services included in the $75.8 million Navajo Department of Health COVID-19 response budget.
In response to the DHA statement the next day, a weary DOH Director Jill Jim revealed on the Facebook town hall that the reason the Hataalii had not gotten their funds was because the entire $2 million had not been spent or obligated through her department by the Nov. 20 deadline and had therefore reverted to the Hardship Assistance Fund.
Jim and other president’s office officials placed blame on changing CARES legislative deadlines, bureaucratic processes, and controller’s office denials for the debacle.
According to the DHA, DOH had informed three groups (DHA, Azeé Bee Nahaghá of Diné Nation and “other” faith-based organizations) in a meeting on Sept. 30 that they would receive $600,000 each, but they never heard anything back after that, despite multiple follow-up inquiries.
This loss comes at a time when resources to support culturally based traditional healing services are needed the most, said Hershel Clark, ABNDN public health advisor and spokesman for the Nahalahi (peyote ceremonial practitioners).
“We’ve got to help each other,” said Clark. “People are hurting. They are suffering. They need the services that these traditional practitioners can provide. They’re the ones who are needing to go help our people in our communities. That’s my main concern from a public health point of view.”
Clark said it is unfortunate that the DOH and the president’s office did not follow through with their commitments to help the organizations that are in a position to help the people.
“The lack of response is a disregard and disrespect for our traditional Diné Hataałii, and is unacceptable,” stated the DHA.
Jim also explained that only traditional practitioners who work in Navajo Area Indian Health Service or tribal health facilities were included the first-tier prioritization for COVID-19 vaccinations, per CDC guidelines.
This is in spite of the fact that the Navajo Area IHS and the Health Command Operations Center, led by Jim, had publicized that Hataalli and traditional practitioners were in the first priority health care worker grouping, without that qualification.
DHA Secretary Michelle Kahn-John said Navajo Nation leaders citing CARES Act spending policies and processes and CDC public health guidelines on vaccine administration were a “dull and weak” justification for their decisions and lack of response or notification.
Kahn-John is a Ph.D. clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Nursing.
“The disappointing response we received on the town hall basically said members of the Dine Hataalii Association, ABNDN, and faith-based organizations will not receive the previously approved funds, will not receive the suggested alternative support of food/water/PPE, and lastly, community-based traditional practitioners are not part of the 1A tier for COVID 19 vaccine administration … Heartbreaking!” said Kahn-John.
Delegate Eugenia Charles-Newton said the news that the traditional healers were denied assistance as well as the first-tier vaccine priority was “disturbing to hear.”
“Navajo Department of Health has not been forthright,” said Charles-Newton. “I fear this information is another play on words. Our traditional people need to know the truth. Are we to stand by and let our most sacred be treated with such disrespect?”
Back in June, when decisions were still being made by leaders about how to allocate the CARES Act funds, the DHA requested $1 million in funding for a proposal intended to “restore the health and wellness of the Diné people” through ceremonial interventions, educational programming and media outreach.
The DHA proposal was approved by the Navajo Nation Council but vetoed by President Jonathan Nez.
The ABNDN also submitted an elaborate proposal for an $11 million Diné Health and Wellness Center in Chinle, but that was also not approved by the administration.
Finally, in mid-August, Nez approved $2 million in a Council resolution (CJY-67-20) to be distributed to traditional and non-traditional spiritual organizations, including churches.
“The people need to know that the DHA put forward a proposal knowing that our Hataałii needed support during this difficult time,” said DHA President David Johns. “We do not know why the Navajo Nation just stopped working with us.
“The Hataałii are the first responders and are essential, front-line public health workers,” he said. “We feel like we have just been forgotten.”
Delegate Carl Slater, vice chairman of the Health, Education and Human Services Committee, who sponsored the original legislation to support the Hataalii, said the failure to follow through on the part of the executive branch to make sure the spiritual groups got their funds is “emblematic of a broader issue.”
He said the priorities of the Nez administration do not reflect a willingness to work from a place of “tradition, values and morals.”
“There is a real lack of seriousness from the president’s office in understanding how to coordinate all of the internal mechanisms of the Nation to achieve the objectives of the legislation,” said Slater.
“It came down to the last minute for them to spend this funding when there should have been a plan in place from the start,” he said. “All the time that was spent handing out food and stuff could have been time spent directing the programs to spend their money.”
The DHA requested that the “injustices” be remedied and that the funds be released immediately.
“An apology is also in order for the lack of inclusiveness by the Navajo Nation leadership in prioritizing our most treasured wisdom keepers,” stated the DHA.
‘Significant health care workforce’
Responding to an inquiry as to why independent traditional practitioners were being excluded from the first-tier vaccinations, IHS headquarters said Navajo Area is working closely with the Navajo Nation to identify and communicate with priority populations.
However, the DHA and ABNDN say they were not consulted regarding vaccine prioritization.
Public Information Officer Joshua Barnett said the IHS was following the recommendations of the CDC that the “Phase 1a” priority group include “paid and unpaid persons serving in health care settings who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients or infectious materials.”
“Traditional practitioners and medicine men/women that provide services at IHS and tribal health care facilities are included in this phase and can receive the COVID-19 vaccine at their facility,” said Barnett. “Traditional practitioners who do not work in health care facilities are expected to be included in the next phase.”
Kahn-John said as a sovereign nation, the Navajo Nation should be able decide how to prioritize COVID-19 interventions and protect those most vulnerable to the virus.
She said traditional medicine and spiritual practitioners are a “significant health care workforce” and the services they provide are extremely important to the wellbeing of Native people.
“The Navajo Nation has a fourth branch of government based on Fundamental Law,” said Kahn-John. “This means the voice, guidance, recommendations, interventions and protection of traditional wisdom keepers and practitioners must be priority in any Navajo Nation emergency public health response efforts.
“Because we are a unique and culturally distinct population,” she said, “our vaccine administration plan should look different from the standard mainstream CDC protocol.”
Furthermore, Kahn-John said that many traditional practitioners are elders are on the front lines providing treatment for COVID-19 patients, which puts them at high risk for contracting the virus.
“On behalf of our Diné traditional practitioners, we are extremely disheartened and do not understand why Navajo Nation leadership will not acknowledge these beautiful and treasured individuals who carry on and lead us in our Diné way of life and culture,” she said.
Clark said he “strongly agrees” with the DHA position, noting many Diné practitioners have already been lost to COVID-19.
“We must continue to protect our most sacred knowledge keepers during this critical time,” he said. “I strongly recommend our Navajo leaders to take action … We must work together as we move forward to heal our Nation.”
Slater is now proposing an emergency $17.4 million supplemental legislation (No. 311-20) to fund additional COVID-19 response programs through the Unreserved, Undesignated Fund Balance that would include assistance for traditional practitioners along the lines of what was not fulfilled through the DOH CARES Act program.
However, that cannot move forward until the supplemental request is signed by the president’s office.