Tlaib Re-Introduces Bill to Promote Health Equity & Inclusion for MENA Community

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (MI-12) along with Congresswomen Debbie Dingell (MI-06), Anna Eshoo (CA-16) and Robin Kelly (IL-02) introduced the Health Equity and Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Community Inclusion Act, legislation that will help ensure the experiences and needs of our neighbors within the MENA community are accurately recognized by the federal government. This will help make them eligible for targeted minority public health programs and resources.

“Michigan’s 12th District has one of the largest Middle Eastern and North African populations in the country, but the federal government doesn’t treat these residents as their own demographic group. Instead, the U.S. government considers those of Middle Eastern and North African descent to be ‘white,’” said Congresswoman Tlaib. “This makes it difficult for federal agencies to effectively serve our residents. This impacts public health research and funding, educational services, civil rights protections, and political representation. With the Health Equity and MENA Community Inclusion Act, MENA residents will finally have their true identity reflected in our nation’s public health system. This is critical in providing resources and services to our Middle Eastern and North African neighbors, which is key to addressing the negative public health impacts experienced by so many in the MENA community caused by systemic erasure by our federal government.”

This bill comes as efforts continue to add MENA as a racial ethnic group to the United States Census. Last year, Tlaib led a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) urging the Biden Administration to take action on this issue. As we celebrate Arab American Heritage Month this April, President Biden became the first president to recognize the Arab American Community with a proclamation.

“My Administration is also exploring adding a new data category to the census for Middle Eastern and North African communities as part of our vital work to ensure that Arab Americans are seen, valued, consulted, and properly considered as new policy is made,” President Biden stated in the proclamation.

The Health Equity and Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Community Inclusion Act would amend the Public Health Service Act of 1944 by adding ‘Middle Easterners and North Africans’ to the definition of ‘racial and ethnic minority groups,’ making MENA individuals and communities eligible for resources targeted towards historically marginalized groups for the first time. These resources and programs – which the MENA community has not been able to access because the federal government still incorrectly categorizes them as “white” – are specifically designed to address the negative public health impacts experienced by many in historically marginalized communities and are key to improving health outcomes and general quality of life. Additionally, the bill directs the federal government to undertake a comprehensive study of the unique health patterns and outcomes of MENA populations to make up for the historic lack of public health research on the community.

This bill aims to ensure that the federal government is specifically considering how the MENA community’s health is impacted in various ways and would provide guidance to the Department of Health and Human Services to proactively incorporate recognition of “Middle Easterners and North Africans” into their implementation of existing programs that rely upon the definition of “racial and ethnic minority groups.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic shone a bright light on the massive inequities in our healthcare system,” said Congresswoman Dingell. “If we want to close these gaps, we must better understand the needs of each community across our nation. The Health Equity and MENA Community Inclusion Act takes a long-overdue step to help our federal agencies better understand the specific health needs of our Middle Eastern and North African neighbors and will help ensure that linguistic and cultural barriers do not stand in the way of access to proper care. This legislation is exactly what we need to bring us one step closer to achieving health equity for all.”

The Health Equity and Middle Eastern and North African Community Inclusion Act adds both communities to the definition of ‘racial and ethnic minority groups’ across existing public health programs, making them eligible for resources targeting historically marginalized groups for the first time,” said Congresswoman Eshoo. “This is a key step in improving health outcomes for these communities in the U.S. and will help serve the 34,000 Middle Eastern and North African Americans in Santa Clara County.”

Furthermore, the bill expresses the sense of Congress that funds authorized for programs should be increased to account for the unique health needs of “Middle Easterners or North Africans” alongside those of all other racial and ethnic minority groups. The National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) conducted a review of the available literature on MENA health outcomes and found that Arab Americans have a lower life expectancy than non-Arab and non-Hispanic white people in Michigan and that in studies done in Detroit, Arab Americans reported greater proportions of various forms of cancer. These disparities display a great need for specific services and focused research on the federal level. The full report from NNAAC can be found here.

“The distinct experiences and unique needs of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) communities are unrecognized and underserved by federal government, perpetuating health disparities on racial and ethnic lines,” said Rima Meroueh, Director of the National Network for Arab American Communities. “The Health Equity and MENA Community Inclusion Act would allow agencies like the HHS to better serve MENA communities, eliminate barriers to their access to quality health care, and improve progress towards health equity. This would be done by recognizing MENA communities as a racial and ethnic minority group and requiring HHS to conduct a comprehensive health study of MENA communities disaggregated by population subgroups.”

The full text of bill can be found here.

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