Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill this week to direct money to tribal health-care systems and create a council focused on improving health outcomes for members of the 29 tribes here.

“I think it is one of the most promising pieces of legislation I’ve seen on the state level,” said Aren Sparck, Government Affairs Officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board (SIHB). Sparck worked on the bill, which has been a couple of legislative sessions in the making and got the governor’s signature Tuesday.

The program is expected to distribute $3 million to $5 million in the first year, and that number could grow in future years. Through Medicaid, the federal government matches money that states invest in Native American health care. 

The new law creates a Governor’s Indian Health Advisory Council that includes a representative from every tribe in the state, CEOs of the state’s two Urban Indian Health Boards, legislators from both parties and someone from the governor’s office. It’s important that the council involve a wide range of people who can make improvements to health care as well as the people impacted by those decisions, Sparck said.

The law directs the council to draw up an Indian Health Improvement Advisory Plan.

The bill, which was called the Washington Indian Health Improvement Act, passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously. It was sponsored by Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, and Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness.


This dual approach — leveraging Medicaid matching dollars and bringing together all parties that can have an impact on Native Americans’ health — could be used to help indigenous peoples across the nation, said Vicki Lowe, executive director of the American Indian Health Commission.

“The level of trust and participation by all parties involved brings a lot of hope for the future health of Native communities in Washington,” Lowe said in a press release. “We are providing a model that we hope to see replicated throughout the country.”

The first dollars for the program are expected to be set aside by November, but it isn’t yet clear when the money will be distributed, Sparck said.