Arkansas lawmakers OK funding for Camden hospital, continue debate on federal pandemic relief
Arkansas legislators on Friday approved a request from the state Department of Human Services for up to $6 million in federal pandemic relief funding to support a Camden hospital at risk of closing.
However, the Arkansas Legislative Council also sent three of four committee-approved projects back to its Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee.
Some lawmakers continued to express recent frustration with how state officials and agencies have requested portions of the state’s share of federal COVID-19 relief dollars.
After passing over DHS’ request for $60 million to support struggling rural hospitals earlier in the week, lawmakers heard from two hospitals Friday. They approved a motion to appropriate up to $6 million to Ouachita County Medical Center after hospital officials reported having less than five days cash on hand.
Lawmakers also heard from North Arkansas Regional Medical Center and voted to send the hospital’s funding request back to the PEER subcommittee.
DHS requested $60 million from the American Rescue Plan Act Steering Committee Aug. 31 to support hospitals that are in immediate jeopardy of closing. Mark White, DHS chief of staff, told legislators Friday that hospitals are struggling because of higher expenses across the board, particularly in staffing and Medicare advanced payments.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the federal government advanced hospitals payments on Medicare; now, hospitals are paying that back, White said. Legislators appropriated the $6 million to OCMC, with the condition that they repay their outstanding balance within 90 days.
Much of Friday’s meeting continued a discussion started at Tuesday’s PEER meeting about how to prioritize the appropriation of dwindling ARPA funds, which can be used to address the negative economic impacts of COVID-19, including providing assistance to small businesses and hard-hit industries, as well as for investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
More than $1.5 billion in ARPA funding was allocated to Arkansas, and $867 million remained prior to the ARPA Steering Committee’s Aug. 18 meeting, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) said he and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) had a “very good discussion” with Gov. Asa Hutchinson Thursday morning about the issue. The intention over the next month is to redesign how proposals come before the ARPA steering committee and PEER, Hickey said. With the remaining ARPA funds, Hickey said he wants legislators to have a better understanding of the needs of Arkansas hospitals.
“We are going to look at how things are brought out of the [ARPA] steering committee with these remaining funds to make sure that we feel that there is a prioritization within those, bring those to the membership so that we understand that at least a majority of you have to agree on those prioritizations,” Hickey said.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) expressed frustration with the decision to halt the process of appropriating ARPA funds when legislators have been doing so for months.
“We have had a process in place all this time, now all of a sudden there is a lack of clarity when these particular issues come before this body,” Chesterfield said. “If the interest was in prioritization, it should have been done at the beginning of the process.”
Some legislators have expressed concern about institutions not knowing about the availability of ARPA funds, though Sen. Breanne Davis (R-Russellville) noted information has been shared in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and online for more than a year.
If a new application process is developed, Davis said she’s worried they’ll receive so many requests that there won’t be enough funding for schools like Arkansas Tech University and Northwest Technical Institute, which have already applied but now have plans on hold as legislators determine next steps.
“If the argument is that the information for the funds available was not widely distributed, we know very clearly that it was both in July and August of last year,” Davis said. “And so I would like help understanding why those schools are being punished because others didn’t do their job.”
Funding requests from seven state universities and colleges were on PEER’s agenda Tuesday. Legislators only approved Black River Technical College’s request for $4.6 million, but ALC declined to give final approval Friday, voting to send the proposal back to the subcommittee.
ALC returned two more proposals approved by PEER, including a $5 million request from DHS to support training and certification of teams employed by behavioral health agencies and a $25,000 request from the finance department to reimburse employees and employers for COVID-19 testing.
The council did grant final approval to the Department of Agriculture for $280 million to support water, wastewater and irrigation projects.