Much has been said of how our state has distributed ARPA funds to date, and even more has been said of late about how the remaining funds should be spent and the scrutiny applied to requests for those funds.
Many of the funding requests have a great deal of merit, and lawmakers are in a tough spot when it comes to determining how to best use these once-in-a-lifetime dollars. But as those dollars dwindle, we must examine our priorities through the lens of long-term impact and not immediate gratification.
About half of the nearly $1.6 billion dollars our state received in ARPA funds have been distributed to date. We’ve addressed broadband, water and sewer needs, helped hospitals offset the costs associated with COVID-19, and more.
And while there are still legitimate concerns that could be addressed with quick capital investment, I believe our state’s greatest priority with which these funds can have the most significant impact is in health care.
The pandemic has shifted how most of us view health care, and health care is shifting in the aftermath, too. For starters – like most other industries across the country – health care verticals are reeling from a lack of a ready and available workforce.
COVID-19 worsened a national shortage of registered nurses, and from lab techs to RNAs, medical facilities are struggling to keep qualified personnel on staff. There aren’t nearly enough incoming to fill those gaps. Hospital and med school administrators have been calling on policymakers at every level to invest in education to ease that growing pressure to make the health care system more stable.
And while the worst of the pandemic may hopefully be in our rearview, the demand for qualified health care staff will not go away without intervention. As patients delayed or skipped necessary care during the pandemic and the nation’s population grows older, the chronic disease burden will only continue to rise. Our state has managed to avoid the widespread rural hospital closures that a number of other states have experienced. Still, we can only stave it off for so long without serious consideration for long-term investment.
Arkansas lawmakers – myself included – cannot rely on our limited knowledge of the field and its highest priorities, both current and long-term, to sufficiently dispense remaining ARPA funds to areas of highest impact. And that is why I am calling on Governor Asa Hutchinson to call together a task force of critical stakeholders in Arkansas health care. The task force should include leaders from medical associations, hospital associations, higher education, DHS, department of health, and pharmacy associations to put forth a list of priorities that, with the capital investment afforded to us by these once-in-a-lifetime federal funds, can have the greatest impact on the life and livelihood of Arkansans today and in the future.
Health care, coupled with the opportunity for quality education, lays the foundation for a level playing field for economic advancement and the pursuit of individual dignity and success. Investing in Arkansas’ health care future is vital to the prosperity of all Arkansans, regardless of which corner of the state they call home. I ask that Governor Hutchinson to bring together this task force of health care leaders and put the onus on us lawmakers to invest in that future.