State lawmakers agreed Tuesday to spend $7 million in federal funds toward managing the coronavirus outbreak among Hispanic and Marshallese populations in Northwest Arkansas.
The decision to appropriate the funding -- along with $16 million in addition federal funding for contact tracing across the state -- came as a reversal from Friday’s meeting of the Legislative Council, when a number of conservative lawmakers voted to delay action on either proposal after raising concerns about the pace at which the Arkansas Department of Health was requesting new money to fight the virus.
That decision prompted much public scrutiny by those who pointed out that Hispanic and Marshallese communities have borne the worst of the virus’ outbreak in Northwest Arkansas.
Responding to the delay on Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, said it did not send a “good message at all.”
Still, some lawmakers repeated their frustrations with the state approach on Tuesday, accusing Hutchinson’s administration of seeking “piecemeal” funding for new initiatives and quizzing Health Department officials over the effectiveness of their current contact tracing efforts.
After nearly three hours of debate however, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers agreed to the appropriation with only about a dozen legislators dissenting.
State Rep. Megan Godfrey, D- Springdale, whose district includes many Hispanics and Marshallese, expressed gratitude Tuesday that the Legislative Council quickly reconsidered the item after the initial delay.
“This was not only necessary as a monetary appropriation, but it is a gesture of goodwill and community and showing that we are all in this together as Arkansans,” Godfrey said.
The $7 million targeted toward minority communities in Northwest Arkansas will be distributed to several local providers to hire 66 bilingual contact tracing staff, 30 case management staff and 20 testing staff, according to Dr. Pearl McElfish, a vice chancellor at UAMS Northwest.
Meanwhile, the Health Department plans to use the $16 million to either expand services by two contact tracing firms currently under contract with the state or to pay for a potential third vendor, according to Jo Thompson, the Health Department’s chief financial officer.