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Strict CARES Act fund disbursement guidelines remain confusing for Indian Country

Although the U.S. Department of the Treasury has already cut the checks, there is still some uncertainty in Indian Country about what exactly counts as an acceptable use of CARES Act money.

Under guidance issued by the Treasury in June, state, local and tribal governments are allowed to use CARES Act money to provide direct cash assistance to their constituents. However, the disbursal of the funds requires documentation directly related to COVID-created needs, such as increased internet bandwidth to support teleworking or distance learning.

Blanket per capita checks are not allowed, and going that route can be grounds for the federal government to request an audit or even repayment from the tribal government or recipient tribal member.

With that guidance coming out weeks after Native Nations began receiving federal aid, some Oklahoma tribes are having to adjust their plans and get creative in order to provide previously promised direct assistance without running afoul of the federal government.

For example, before the Department of the Treasury weighed in on per capita payments, the Stroud-based Sac and Fox Nation had already announced plans in May for all of its citizens to receive two checks regardless of income status, with the first round distributed in June.

In light of the federal government’s new guidance, all Sac and Fox citizens must now include an application to receive that second payment that lists all economic hardships incurred due to the pandemic, including medical bills, buying personal protective equipment or securing additional cleaning supplies.

The Sac and Fox Nation is not the only Oklahoma tribe having to adjust its COVID-19 aid plans. After initially putting out a call in May for tribal citizens to update their addresses in order to receive a check, the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma also added an application requirement in order to remain in compliance with federal guidance.

Meanwhile, an attempt to implement a $1,000 per capita payment at the Kiowa Tribe brought the Carnegie-based tribe into court. The Court of Indian Offenses issued a temporary injunction in August to block further spending of CARES Act money until the tribe adopted a budget that included a line item breakdown of how it would spend the relief funds. The injunction has since been lifted and the tribe did not implement a per capita payment. Instead, Kiowa citizens are still required to fill out an application and include information regarding the pandemic’s impact on their finances.

Tribes are not the only ones having to maneuver around the regulatory confusion. A subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Appropriations held a hearing on the impact of the coronavirus on Indian Country on Sept. 30. National Council on Urban Indian Health Chief Executive Officer Francys Crevier, J.D., testified that the facilities she represents have had to contend with similar curveballs due to belated and sometimes conflicting guidance.

She spoke of an urban Indian clinic that had planned to use federal COVID relief funds for heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements that would reduce the risk of spreading droplets. However, the clinic’s request for CARES Act money to pay for the project was denied on the grounds that the system would impact more than just solely COVID-19 patient rooms.

“There are a lot of administrative restrictions placed on us,” Crevier said. “That has really challenged our programs. It’s not that we don’t need it — we absolutely need it — but there are way too many restrictions on how it is used.”