AFN_031820_News_StateBudgetConcerns

State lawmakers approved $55 million Thursday to provide resources for the Department of Health Services to deal with COVID-19.

Legislation given unanimous consent by the House and Senate provides an immediate $5 million infusion and sets aside up to $50 million more for Health Director Cara Christ to use at her discretion between now and June 30.

All of the dollars are coming from the state’s “rainy-day’’ fund, a $1 billion set-aside of state cash for both emergencies like this as well as to deal with ups and downs in state revenues.

But that question of unanticipated changes in income has come into sharp focus as the state begins to assess the impact of the virus on the economy.

The latest blow when Major League Baseball canceled spring training, which generates $25 million by teams and those who visit Arizona to attend the games.

On top of that are the decisions by various groups to cancel their conferences as well as reduced tourism overall. And as investors sell of their stocks to minimize their losses that will affect what individuals pay in income taxes in April 2021.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, the House Speaker pro-tem, said all that clouds the revenue picture.

That could delay adopting a state budget for the coming fiscal year that begins July 1, both in the “wish list’’ of new spending and proposals to cut taxes.

Sen. Victoria Steele, D-Tucson, said the approval of the funds recognizes the fact that quick action is necessary to protect Arizona residents against further spread of the disease beyond the nine cases that have so far been identified. And she praised Christ as “an expert epidemiologist.’’

But Steele said that Christ can’t really devote all her energy to COVID-19.

That’s because she also has been functioning as acting director of the Department of Economic Security since last October following the resignation of Michael Trailor from that position.

Gov. Doug Ducey, in tapping Christ for the dual role, also tasked her with leading a national search for a new DES director.

“I think that she should be able to, in this time of a pandemic, devote all of her time to the operation of the Department of Health and the focus on the corona virus,’’ Steele said. “It concerns me that she also has this side hustle of being the director of DES on an interim basis.’’

In separate action Thursday, state lawmakers are moving to limit public access to the Capitol amid fears of the spread of COVID-19.

The directive Thursday from House and Senate leaders closes off the public gallery of both chambers. This is the area above the floor where people can watch debate and votes.

That limits viewing to online.

None of this closes committee meetings where lawmakers take testimony on bills. But the directive urges the people who chair those committees to limit the number of speakers and encourage those with positions to find other ways to inform lawmakers.

Others who have no specific business, however, are being turned away. That includes school field trips, and visits by outside organizations and foreign dignitaries.

The Legislature’s actions came the day after Ducey declared an emergency because of the virus and signed an order giving state officials more leeway and tools to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Nothing in the governor’s decision actually restricts what people can do or where they can go. 

Christ said there are no plans to limit large public gatherings as governors in other states have done.

Ducey’s declaration eases licensing requirements for health officials and facilities, potentially making room for more patients as they are diagnosed; allows hospitals and health care facilities, including nursing homes, additional “flexibility’’ to question and screen both employees and visitors; and gives health officials new authority to procure “needed medical supplies.’’

The governor also issued a separate executive order directing insurance companies and health plans to pay for care provided to patients who see doctors and laboratories who are not part of their network. 

And Ducey said his order also protects consumers against “price gouging’’ by private labs and health care providers for testing for the new virus.

Christina Corieri, the governor’s health advisor, said she reads that authority to prosecute price gouging exists under state laws allowing the Attorney General’s Office to investigate consumer fraud.

But Ryan Anderson, a top aide to Attorney General Mark Brnovich, said that’s not true.

“Arizona does not have laws prohibiting price gouging or charging high prices in times of emergency or heightened public health concerns,’’ he told Capitol Media Services. 

He said the laws cited by the governor’s office deal with things like fraud, deceptive practices, false promises or misrepresentation in the sale or advertising of merchandise.

Ducey’s declaration came just hours after legislative Democrats asked the governor to declare a special session – to run concurrent with the regular session they are now in – to approve more far-reaching proposals. 

These include creating funds to pay for mandatory testing, providing for free evaluation and testing for those without health insurance, and creating a fund to pay for sick leave for public employees under quarantine or sick.

The governor, however, said he was taking a much more measured approach, saying the problems in Arizona are not that severe, at least not now. 

“These are proactive measures to limit community spread,’’ he said, situations where people who have no known contact with anyone who was ill still contract the disease.

For example, he said, there is no evidence that any of the two confirmed cases and seven suspected cases were in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“If that happened, we want DHS to be equipped to act immediately, and with urgency,’’ Ducey said. He also said his executive order is designed to “do more to protect vulnerable populations.’’

Christ said the situation remains fluid.

“We are constantly monitoring the local, national and global activities so that we can make data-driven decisions that protect our communities while having as minimal an impact on Arizonans’ daily lives as possible,’’ she said.

That, Christ said, fits into the decision to not cancel mass gatherings.

“We are working right now with the CDC on brand-new community mitigation guidance they just put out,’’ she said.

“And we are not at a point where we would recommend those things,’’ Christ continued. “But we are constantly evaluating to see if those measures do make sense.’’

Christ said that the provisions easing licensing requirements is designed to provide more flexibility to meet changing health needs.

For example, she said, a health care facility licensed for a certain number of beds might have space where it could house additional patients.  

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