Federal pandemic recovery funds offer opportunity for Arkansas communities to invest in better future

by Dr. Joe Thompson ([email protected]) 1,488 views 

Editor’s note: This guest commentary is co-authored by Dr. Joe Thompson & Craig Wilson of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement. Craig Wilson, J.D., M.P.A., is the director of health policy for the ACHI. Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., is president and CEO of ACHI and was Arkansas’ surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe. The opinions expressed are those of the authors.

The federal government is extending a lifeline to communities across the nation still reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Rescue Plan includes nearly $2.6 billion in COVID-19 recovery funds for Arkansas, with $1.57 billion going to the state government and over $1 billion going to local governments.

Local governments will receive the funds in split payments, with 50% provided this month and the remainder to be delivered at least a year later. Decisions made in the coming weeks — and in response to the second round of funding later — will determine whether communities merely enjoy a financial stimulus while trudging along the same path or seed a new trajectory of economic growth and investment in the health and well-being of the community.

For some Arkansas communities — albeit fewer than in other states where revenues have dipped more sharply and pandemic-related expenditures were greater — a top priority for the use of the ARP funds will be to stabilize operating budgets and to plug deficits or offset unanticipated expenditures. Some funds will be used to respond to continuing needs related to the public health emergency and to prepare for a resurgence or future outbreaks. These efforts could include:

· Ensuring that government-owned or -operated facilities and/or grounds follow guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arkansas Department of Health.
· Improving ventilation systems in government-owned or -operated facilities to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure.
· Providing rent, homeownership or utility support to impacted families.
· Launching or enhancing outreach and education efforts to increase vaccination rates or encourage healthy work conditions.
· Conducting a post-event analysis to document successes and challenges.
· Establishing or refining a pandemic response plan.

Use of the recovery funds does not have to be confined to budget stabilization and pandemic response, however. The magnitude of the funding and the flexibility permitted under the American Rescue Plan have created an extraordinary opportunity for Arkansas communities to make investments that will have meaningful, long-term impacts on the health and future economic prosperity of communities. Through careful consideration of environmental factors and reorganization of infrastructure, communities can improve the health and well-being of their citizens and reduce the factors that contribute to health disparities.

These investments could include:

· Increasing recreational green space through parks or open spaces, renovation or enhancement of under-used recreation areas, or rehabilitation of vacant lots to encourage outdoor activities and reduce congregation indoors.
· Providing support to families to repair, improve, or modernize dwellings and remove hazards that could lead to adverse outcomes from COVID-19 and other health and safety issues.
· Enhancing broadband availability and access.
· Increasing law enforcement training on acute mental health crises to support diversion to crisis stabilization units.
· Training and employing community health care workers to enable vaccine access and simultaneously train them in health-related occupational pathways to set them up for post-pandemic careers.

Funding decisions across different governmental entities — cities, counties, school districts, and the state — should be aided by the establishment of local coordinating councils. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday the creation of a steering committee to recommend the best uses for the $1.57 billion that the state government will receive; local governmental entities would benefit from a similar approach, which offers a transparent and participatory process to achieve efficient and equitable use of funds.

Ideally, councils should include demographically diverse community members from both the public and private sector, including small business owners, neighborhood and school leaders, representatives of social service agencies, philanthropic leaders, and public health and healthcare leaders.

Given that the funds are being provided in response to a global pandemic, each funding allocation should be informed through the use of a health impact assessment, a tool that can help communities, decision-makers, and health care practitioners make choices that improve public health through community design.

Priorities for each locality will vary, of course. There is no single strategy that can ensure everyone will be healthier. Each community receiving recovery funds will have the opportunity to determine for itself how it can best strengthen efforts to improve the health of all who live, learn, work, and play there.