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Northwest Arkansas virus expenditure sidelined

Marshallese, Hispanics focus of request by Michael R. Wickline | July 25, 2020 at 8:20 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Lawmakers on Friday balked at considering the state Department of Health's request to clear the way for the Northwest Arkansas Council to use $7 million in federal funds for covid-19 contact tracing, testing and case coordination for the region's Hispanic and Marshallese populations.

The regional council's Health Care Transformation Division also would aid these populations in Independence, Randolph, Sevier and Yell counties.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson later told reporters that the Arkansas Legislative Council's action doesn't send "a good message at all" to Marshallese and Hispanic populations.

He said he hopes the Legislative Council will approve the request soon.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

At the end of the Legislative Council's three-hour-plus meeting, House members voted 14-9 to reject a motion to suspend the rules to consider the Health Department request and a second one for spending authority for a total of $7.3 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Besides the $7 million request for the Northwest Arkansas Council, the department also sought authority to send $300,000 to the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame for grant funding to support minorities affected by covid-19.

Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, who voted against suspending the rules, said in an interview, "We already have got the $22 million that is going for contact tracing" at the Health Department.

Asked about the money for the Northwest Arkansas Council, she said, "I want to hear the full proposals before we'll start putting out money for both the $7 million and the $300,000.

"We need to hear the full proposals," Lundstrum said. "We are not getting it today, so we need to hear it first before we start spending money."

Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, who voted to suspend the rules to consider the requests, said in an interview, "Part of the problem today is that No. 1, there is an ongoing issue that members have with things being brought late to the table, so there is already a general angle against supplemental agendas, particularly if you are asking for a significant amount of money.

"Some bad luck happened," he said. "You got at the end of a very long contentious meeting about other things, and my guess is at least a significant percentage of the people that were against this were ready to get out of town."

But, Whitaker added, "I am encouraged by the fact that we'll be back another day."

The request to send $7 million to Northwest Arkansas caused some lawmakers from other parts of the state to question whether their constituents are being assisted in similar ways.

At his near-daily covid-19 news conference Friday, Hutchinson said, "The fact is, the [U.S.] Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] recommended a special investment and some increased testing, contact tracing and emphasis on the Latinx and Marshallese populations there in Northwest Arkansas, and the CARES Act Steering Committee expanded that to include other parts of the state that had high minority populations that were impacted."

The CARES Act is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March.

The law provided $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief funds to Arkansas. Hutchinson appointed the 15-member steering committee to recommend the best uses of that money.

"I'm anxious for the Legislative Council to approve that, because it is needed," Hutchinson said of the funds for the Northwest Arkansas Council.

"We have 900 [new] cases today. We want to take aggressive action. There's pressure on the Department of Health to do this, to get it done and to get it right, and we want to utilize our partners and this is part of it," the Republican governor said.

"So I hope that the Legislative Council, while they didn't act on it today, will meet again very quickly and act on that and pass it, because we need that done. We need those resources," Hutchinson said.

Nelson Peacock, president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council, said Friday in a written statement, "The efforts outlined in the proposal were recommended by the CDC and Arkansas Department of Health."

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest and community clinic "were asked to coordinate these efforts due to long-standing relationships with leaders and community partners within the Latinx and Marshallese communities of Northwest Arkansas," he said.

"We are confident that once the Arkansas Legislative Council has an opportunity to review and understand the urgency of the proposal, it will approve these much-needed funds to support the communities most disproportionately affected by the virus," he said.

The Legislative Council also delayed action until next month on the Health Department's request for $16 million in additional authority to spend federal funds for contact tracing beyond the $22 million spending authority granted in May.

Stephanie Williams, chief of staff of the Health Department, told lawmakers she's heard grave concerns and dissatisfaction from lawmakers about the time it's taken for people to learn of their covid-19 test results; and for case investigation to be initiated and contact tracing done for people who were potentially exposed.

"We agree that we need to accelerate the timeline," she said. "It is a manpower issue for us at this point.

"We are respectfully requesting to move forward with our proposal to utilize two contractors, which will triple our capacity to do contact tracing," Williams said. "We are also asking for additional funding to expand those contracts to include additional nursing staff for case investigation, but there will be timely notification and rapid turnover around on that process."

She said the department's $20 million, 12-month contact tracing contracts are with General Dynamics Information Technology and the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care.

Williams said, "We have worked with the contractors to make sure that they will hire Arkansans who are familiar and know areas in Arkansas."

So far, Williams said, the department has spent $1.2 million of the $22 million in federal coronavirus relief funds authorized by the Legislative Council for contact tracing.

Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked why the department sought authorization to spend $16 million more on contact tracing if it hasn't spent all of the original $22 million.

Williams replied that's "because we anticipate that we are going to need to exceed the capacity intended for the first two contracts.

"The first two contracts are for them to hire 350 contractors each," she said. "We need more than that and we also need additional nursing staff. Part of the problem that we have is with the notification of the positive cases and completion of the case investigation, so we also are asking the contractors to add nursing staff, so that would add an additional 80 nurses for the next six months to work with our nurses to complete those investigations."

General Dynamics Information Technology has 305 tracers, and the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care has 134, department spokeswoman Meg Mirivel said afterward.

General Dynamics tracers started work July 9 and the Arkansas Foundation began Monday, she said.

"Our lab expansion proves that we are serious about this," Williams said. "We are trying to move things quickly. In this instance, we just need to reconcile the timelines by getting our contact tracers and case investigators up to speed and working more quickly."

Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said, "Until you have the testing capacity and the quick turnaround time, it seems that as if the contact tracing is not only ineffective, it's kind of a waste of money.

"Until we get to that point, I don't know that it's a good idea to necessarily double down on it," he said.

Jo Thompson, chief financial officer for the Health Department, said she expects the department to spend about $4 million on the two tracing contracts by this time next month.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said, "You should have more than ample enough appropriation to carry us on so we don't have to do the appropriation today. As far as the money goes, I think this body should wait on that."

The council approved $120,000 of Arkansas PBS' request for $5.18 million in spending authority to use federal coronavirus relief funds to expand its broadcast coverage from about 76% of the state's population to 97%.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, proposed spending $120,000 on a study of the network's proposed expansion.

"After that study is complete, they can come before [the Legislative Council] and ask for the additional dollars needed for full implementation," he said.

Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis asked his colleagues to vote against Dismang's motion. "Why in the world would we deny a quarter of the people of this state the opportunity to enjoy what three-quarters of the state enjoys?"

But state Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, said the study by Arkansas PBS will take about a month and the council can approve the required spending authority for its expansion next month.

Information for this article was contributed by Andy Davis of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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