Senator Tom Udall Discusses Bills to Improve Border Health and Economic Well-being During Visit to Sunland Park, N.M.

Yesterday, in a visit to New Mexico’s southern border, U.S. Senator Tom Udall announced that he is working on two bills to help improve the health and economies of border communities as well as our national security. He discussed the impact the legislation could have on border community health and economic development at a meeting of the Paso del Norte Binational Health Council and a tour of La Clinica de Familia.

The first bill, the Border Health Security Act, would strengthen binational collaboration and establish grant programs to improve public health infrastructure and infectious disease monitoring. The second bill, the Colonias Improvement Act, would streamline access to water and road improvements for the local governments serving thousands of people living in significantly underserved areas along the border – known as colonias – by reducing red tape and ensuring that those communities most in need have the support necessary to build thriving communities.

Many residents living along New Mexico’s southern border face unique health and economic challenges, due to cross-border traffic, distance from major cities and inadequate roads, water and sewer systems. One in four families in the colonias lives in poverty, many without access to decent housing – even working plumbing. The lack of access to health services and educational opportunities also contributes to higher rates of serious communicable diseases. Udall’s bills seek to improve the social and economic well-being of border area residents by improving public health preparedness and access to funding for long–term investments that support economic development in border communities.

“Too many residents living on the border lack access to adequate health care and quality housing. We need to break down these barriers and work to improve health, ensure people have a safe and healthy community to live in, and stop the spread of communicable diseases,” Udall said.

“Investing in these border communities, especially colonias, will improve the future health, security and economic well-being of the entire border region,” Udall continued. “Disease and pollution don’t stop at the international border. And all families deserve quality housing with access to water and sewer services. My bills will make it easier for local governments to apply for federal assistance programs to improve border roads and water infrastructure and will put protections in place to prevent the spread of dangerous diseases over the border.”

Detailed information about the bills follows:

Border Health Security Act

The Border Health Security Act strengthens the United-States Mexico Border Health Commission Act to recommend and implement initiatives that solve border health issues. It also supports grant program that would improve and protect the health of border area residents and visitors by providing border states with the resources needed to prevent, detect and respond to cross-border infectious diseases, epidemics, and bioterrorism.

In 2003, the Early Warning Infectious Disease Surveillance program (EWIDS) was created to provide funding to states along the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada borders to detect, identify and report outbreaks of infectious diseases. However, funding has run out, leaving the nation more vulnerable and without a system for infectious disease surveillance, prevention and treatment along its borders.

Udall’s bill would authorize $7 million per year for border grants and operations and address the high rates of diseases and inadequate hazard preparedness infrastructure along the nation’s southern and northern borders by:

– Recognizing the United States-Mexico Border Health Commission (Commission) and the Canada-United States Pan-Border Public Health Preparedness Council (Council) as the public health entities responsible for recommending and implementing initiatives to solve border health issues.

– Establishing a grant program to address priorities and recommendations outlined by the Commission and Council to improve and protect the health of border area residents. Potential issues the grants may address include infectious disease testing, monitoring, and surveillance; public health and public health infrastructure; health conditions with a high prevalence; medical and health services research; health care infrastructure; health disparities; environmental health; epidemiology and health research; and workforce training and development.

-Allowing grants to be used for EWIDS and Border Infectious Disease Surveillance (BIDS) projects to develop and implement infectious disease surveillance plans, public health emergency plans, readiness assessments and preparedness plans, and alert networks; improve infrastructure and laboratories; workforce training; and health information technology.

The Border Health Security Act is cosponsored by Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). The National Rural Health Association and the American Public Health Association have endorsed the bill.

Colonias Improvement Act

The Colonias Improvement Act would maximize the impact of federal resources in colonias communities by updating the definition of “colonia,” to make it easier for communities to apply for assistance programs through multiple agencies. It would also establish a review process to evaluate the effectiveness of current federal colonias assistance programs.

The bill would update and improve federal services for the colonias communities by:

– Directing the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create a unified definition of “colonia” to streamline the federal assistance application process across agencies.

– Requiring the EPA, HUD and USDA each to create a webpage specifically dedicated to programs relevant to the colonias communities.

– Directing the EPA, HUD and USDA to create a multi-agency working group to review colonias programs and make recommendations for improvements. The working group would be required to produce a report with 18 months of the bill’s enactment addressing improvements to current programs, changes necessary to address future economic and social development and improvements to the application process.

The Colonias Improvement Act is cosponsored by Senator Heinrich, and endorsed by the Border Counties Coalition.