The federal government is offering $1.9 trillion through the American Rescue Plan Act with a broad range of options to spend it to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sheer volume of money, as described in NCSL’s summary of ARPA, and potential ways states can spend it, can be daunting. Two panelists offered guidance to the legislators and staff attending NCSL Base Camp 2021 this week.
Dr. Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary of health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the pandemic itself revealed where the critical needs are.
One important lesson from the pandemic is that we are all interconnected, and we need to ensure that a healthier future includes eliminating health disparities. —Dr. Rachel Levine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
“One important lesson from the pandemic is that we are all interconnected, and we need to ensure that a healthier future includes eliminating health disparities,” Levine said. “Another important lesson is the profound importance of public health.”
Jacob Leibenluft, counsel to the U.S. Treasury secretary, said the department finds itself in the unusual position of overseeing a massive rollout of money to states, tribes and local governments in a wide array of areas. Those include infrastructure; programs to help renters, landlords and small businesses; and efforts to address the disparities in health care the pandemic revealed. States, tribes and local governments can also use the funding to replace revenue they lost during the pandemic.
“I would say in some ways, the biggest challenge is, first of all, that we are moving quickly. We’re quite proud of our effort to get money out the door as quickly as we could,” Leibenluft said. “But also that we’re providing clear guidance to the variety of recipients, depending on whether they’re a state, a large city, a rural county or tribal government.”
Fighting the Spread of COVID
Levine described some key priorities for HHS, the first of which is fighting the spread of COVID-19 by increasing vaccinations, testing, contact tracing and protective measures such as mask-wearing. HHS is funding programs that offer financial and gift incentives for people to get vaccines and is working through community organizations that can help connect hard-to-reach populations to vaccines and testing.
Levine said funding will focus on programs and services to address health disparities around access to care for Black, Latino and Native Americans who suffered deep health and economic consequences from the pandemic.
“It is a fact that this pandemic has impacted some communities far more than others and underscores the profound disparities in health that have plagued our nation for too long,” Levine said.
She said mental health will be a key area to address as well, noting that cases of depression, anxiety and substance abuse and overdoses have all risen during the pandemic. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that those conditions, too, have hit some groups harder than others; a report notes that younger adults, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers experienced disproportionately worse mental health, increased substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
The pandemic has also demonstrated gaps in public health programs across the country, Levine said, adding that such programs were underfunded going into the pandemic and that states and the federal government need to invest to make the system stronger.
Put the Money to Work
Leibenluft said a frequent question he gets is whether state legislators and other government officials need to gain Treasury Department approval for their plans with the American Rescue Plan money. He stressed that the program isn’t designed to have Treasury sign off first. The goal is to put the money to work in communities quickly based on general guidance. Treasury will require reports and documentation, of course, and stands ready to advise, but to move quickly, he said the department shares answers to frequently asked questions online. He also invited emailed questions to email@example.com.
Leibenluft said the purpose of ARPA is twofold: to deliver a much-needed boost now and to improve the long-term outlook for the country “by providing the resources needed to continue to bring the pandemic under control; by replacing lost government revenue to ensure continuity of key public services; and by meeting both the immediate and long-term economic challenges laid bare by the pandemic, including the disparities that drove disproportionate impacts on low-income communities.”
And Levine praised state legislators for their key role in shepherding the nation through a recovery.
“You know, at the end of the day, I am motivated by being able to help people,” Levine said. “I know as state legislators that you are, too. We are all in a unique position to be able to make a difference in people’s lives. The American Rescue Plan provides the resource to do just that.”
Kelley Griffin is a writer and editor in NCSL’s Communications Division.