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Health officials, lawmakers question CARES Act money allocation

MORGANTOWN — No one questioned Gov. Jim Justice on Friday when he announced that he was cutting in half the amount of CARES Act money to be devoted to road repairs. But the questions remains” What is he not spending the money on?

Justice said Friday that $50 million of the $100 million – out of $1.25 billion in CARES money – he’d channeled to the Division of Highways would go toward broadband expansion, for such things as distance education and telehealth.

Boyd Vanhorn, administrator of the Grafton-Taylor County Health Department and president of the West Virginia Public Health Association said he doesn’t want to criticize Justice’s decisions as he doesn’t know what the foundations of his decisions were.

“What I will say is local public health is not on the list and it should be,” Vanhorn said. He’d recently been on a conference call with local health officials, and they’ve talked with federal and state legislators. “We’ve received nothing from the CARES funding.”

Grafton-Taylor received a $29,000 one-year COVID-19 grant and has been running on that. “We’re out here on the front line actually administering tests.” They’re doing 40-50 per day at their drive-through site and relying on volunteer help, he said.

Health departments have requested direct reimbursement funding through the CARES Act, Vanhorn said, but were told to access fund through local governments. Grafton-Taylor received an advance from the city and the county, who had to submitted spending justifications to get reimbursed through CARES.

The Dominion Post asked Justice about using CARES money for health departments instead of roads during one of his press briefings this week, before he announced the broadband decision (all interviews for this report were conducted before Friday).

Justice said, “That’s not fair. That’s just plain not fair.” Health departments can apply for a share of the $970.8 million in federal grant money also available. Justice had previously said top priorities for that money include higher education and K-12, future pandemic preparedness such as PPE manufacturing, rural hospitals, health departments and broadband.

“There is incredible dollars setting over there that the CARES money didn’t really need to go toward that,” he said this week regarding funding health departments. “We’ve got grants to take care of all of our local health in every way.”

When his staff worked out how to allocate the $1.25 billion, $100 million was left and he sought legal advice on whether it could go to roads. His office supplied to The Dominion Post a copy of the three-page summary of advice from law firm Bailey Glasser. It says that use would be permissible “where the repairs are necessary to enhance access to medical care for COVID-19 patients and the costs of such repairs are not or cannot be paid for with other federal funds.”

Bailey Glasser noted in its summary that DOH told them none of the projects on the CARES list were scheduled to be funded in its six-year plan.

Congressional response

The Dominion Post asked both U.S. senators and Re. David McKinley for their thoughts of Justice’s use of the CARES money, particularly the $100 million.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s Communications Director Kelley Moore (no relation) said in an email exchange, “Congress intended to give states flexibility in order to meet the needs each state has in addressing the COVID public health emergency. Sen. Capito is confident that West Virginia will spend its CARES Act allocation in a way that meets the needs of our state and local governments and that complies with legal requirements.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, however, openly disagrees with Justice’s approach.

“It’s totally crazy, especially when the health departments are hurting,” he said in a phone interview.”What else would qualify if they don’t?”

CARES money was intended to fight the virus, he said. As a former governor, he understands Justice’s position of balancing the budget. But, “The state’s making itself very vulnerable. Treasury more than likely will refuse to allow the expenses of $100 million toward the program.”

He continued “We’re fighting a health care crisis which is going to turn quickly into an absolute nightmare economically.” Congress’ aim from the first aid package onward was to get 40% to 45% of the money to communities under 500,000 population. The governor has no discretion over that.

“I would have called the Legislature back a long time ago for a special session” and set up the guidelines to disburse the money and stay ahead of the coronavirus.

McKinley’s office did not respond.

Legislative response

At the state level, legislators of both parties also disagreed with Justice’s approach and talked about calling themselves into special session to appropriate the CARES money.

Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, a Finance Committee member, Agriculture and Rural Development chair and former Education chair, said in a text exchange, “Although I strongly agree that our road maintenance and funding have fallen way behind and that this funding source is attractive, it is a long stretch of the imagination to make the CARES Act money fit into the road funding needs. Furthermore, the CARES money, I believe, is intended primarily to help employers and first responders stay viable amid this economic downturn.”

Neither Senate President Mitch Carmichael nor House Speaker Roger Hanshaw responded to invitations to comment. But Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, a former chair of the Health and the Finance committees, commented in a couple phone interviews.

“Our caucus is not very happy with the governor,” he said. It’s the Legislature’s mandate to appropriate federal funds. “We question the $100 million for transportation. I don’t know that’s COVID related.”

The public health system is antiquated and understaffed, he said. But Justice told them, also, that there are plenty of grants that health departments can apply for.

Senate Democrats, Prezioso said, held a virtual caucus late in the week and discussed the possibility of the Legislature calling itself into special session. But they learned from Carmichael that there was no appetite among GOP senators to do that. “ Without the Republicans getting on board there’s no hope of calling us back.”

So he asked his caucus members to put together a CARES wish list and submit it to his office for presentation to the governor. Among the items, he said, are public health, broadband and volunteer fire departments. They want to sit down and talk with Justice about their ideas.

Back at the Public Health Association, Vanhorn said health departments haven’t been totally left in the lurch. They’ve received a $57 million Epidemiological Laboratory Enhancement Grant. Of that, $20 million will go to infrastructure improvements, such as software, hardware and telephones. A statewide system called Chexout will vastly improve contact tracing.

Another portion will fund a statewide task force. Each threat-prep region will have a panel of 11-13 public health personnel able to coordinate response in a regional area. The local region takes in Monongalia, Marion, Harrison,Doddridge, Taylor and Preston counties.

But that’s the future and they’re on the front lines now, he said. “We’ve been doing this since March 20 and funding has been scarce so far, and CARES Act funding inaccessible.”

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