Democrats and Republicans lay out goals for Arizona’s 55th legislative session
Both Democrats and Republicans discussed the toll that COVID-19 is taking on the state during last week’s State of Reform’s Arizona Health Policy Conference on Dec. 3rd. In two different panels, Arizona Democratic and Republican legislators spoke on their policy priorities for the state.
Policy Leadership: Democrats
The Democrat panelists included Sen. Tony Navarrete, Rep. Alma Hernandez and Rep. Amish Shah.
Their legislative plans include:
COVID response and vaccine distribution
Shah said the responsibility to act on PPE shortages falls on the governor’s office, not the legislature. The executive has the power to act immediately but the legislature would take a lot longer to bring a bill forward.
He remains positive about potential vaccines being approved but noted it will take some time before the general public can access them — at least six months. The distribution process will be key, he said.
Equity is also important to consider when administering vaccines, Shah said.
“They [the vaccines] have to be distributed across our population in an equitable way because we want to make sure every group has an opportunity to get vaccinated, specifically looking at the most vulnerable people, to save as many lives as possible,” he said.
Navarrete said the state needs to develop a stakeholder-driven distribution plan. He said there is currently a coalition working on this, but no concrete plan.
“It’s been a bit challenging working with the governor’s office,” he said. “What we need from the governor’s office is to make sure that we’re bringing stakeholders together to address this pandemic and to address the distribution of potential vaccines in a way that’s going to be effective and that’s going to make sure that we’re reaching out to some of our most vulnerable communities.”
There are disparities in fund allocation for certain communities, Hernandez said, noting a lot of her constituents are very low income and need to work high-risk jobs to make a living.
“They’re going into the grocery stores, they’re the ones who are cleaning, they are our direct workers, and they are our caregivers,” she said. “They are the folks who are on the line every day who have to be there because they have no other option to be able to feed their families and survive.”
The panelists agreed that expanding telehealth is crucial for Arizonans.
“Telehealth has always been something that is good for the state, and I think Arizona has led in this area,” Navarrete said. “Over the past legislative session we’ve actually worked directly with ADHS so that we can just do simple rule changes to allow more telehealth, because we have folks in rural communities that often-times have to travel to Maricopa County to see a specialist or Pima county to see a specific provider. For me, telehealth is a way that we can still provide those critical services and make sure folks have that increased access.”
Shah sponsored the telehealth bill in the previous session. It was passed in the House but did not pass the Senate due to COVID-19’s arrival in March.
“I’m going to bring that back,” he said. “My understanding is that the governor’s executive order that he put out on telehealth was based on that bill. I hope that we’ll run that again. It included about seven professions that had not been included prior but I think there’s even more opportunity to work on that bill before moving it forward.”
All three panelists are optimistic about bipartisanship in the next session and believe inter-party cooperation will be fundamental to the legislative response to the pandemic.
“I know we have differences in opinion with the other party in terms of how they look at it and how they approach it,” Shah said. “At the same time, no one really wants people to get sick, nobody really wants bad outcomes, nobody wants businesses to get shuttered and nobody wants an economic collapse or a downturn to result from this.”
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, and I think it is in the best interest of the state of Arizona that we are working together in a collaborative way to address the needs of Arizona’s families,” Navarrete said.
Legislators are elected to serve all Arizonans, regardless of party, Hernandez said. She emphasized the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together and is optimistic about working across the aisle.
Policy Leadership: Republicans
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Sen. Tyler Pace, and Sen.-Elect Nancy Barto talked about some of their most important goals for the upcoming session.
Their priorities include:
Addressing COVID-19’s economic consequences
“The effects of the economic distress continue to affect many, especially those at the ends of the spectrum and the ones that are dependent on the government,” Barto said.
Ugenti-Rita believes the worst economic impacts are yet to come. According to her, the federal CARES Act funds distributed by Gov. Doug Ducey are too high for the state to keep up with in the future.
“We have high unemployment numbers, many people are out of work, businesses are closing, and this is going to have an impact on the revenue that the state receives,” she said. “So there is, what I think, a looming budget crisis because we are not going to be able to sustain the sort of spending levels that we had over the summer and fall because we have had the benefit of, frankly, borrowed money from the federal government.”
She believes the legislature needs to be more involved in the decision-making process concerning the budget rather than Gov. Ducey.
“The legislature is going to have to get very, very tough about making sure that we are involved in the decision-making process, whether it’s through policies or budget, because even if we do have a vaccine, we are still going to be dealing with the effects of COVID-19 — financially, economically — for a very long time,” she said. “So these aren’t decisions that can be made in a vacuum and cannot be made in the governor’s office without input from the legislative branch.”
Rep. Barto believes there is a significant need for mental health reform in Arizona. She says employers need to be given incentive to hire people with serious mental illness. They also need to be given appropriate care, she said.
“It’s been a huge issue for many years, and it’s coming to such a head that states across the nation are focused on making sure that we address this inhumane situation,” she said. “We are wasting so many of our scarce resources in our mental health system by ignoring those with the highest need.”
Sen. Pace also believes the legislature needs to focus on giving better health care to Arizonans struggling with mental health.
“There is a stigma around mental health and the treatment of mental health,” he said. “Depression, while commonly referred to as temporary, is a lifelong ailment for many, many Arizonans, and suicide, harm to themselves, or harm to others is a serious issue that we need to address.”
Funding, resources, and staffing need to be increased to fix this problem, he said.
“We have a severe shortage of health care providers in our psychiatric departments, we have a severe shortage of beds to properly treat them, and our funding for them is abysmal,” he said.
Removing government barriers in health care
According to Sen. Pace, the patient-provider relationship is being harmed by regulations. He used the example of providers not being able to recommend useful treatments to their patients due to barriers from insurance or regulation.
“We heard this all the time with COVID,” he said. “Providers wanted to treat patients in certain ways and in certain time frames but were prevented by federal blockades or certain recommendations that have since changed. Recommendations change as you go and best practices change as you go. Letting our professionals be able to do what they need to do when they need to and as quickly as they need to do has always been a fundamental belief of mine.”
The Center for Disease Control, CMS, and the Arizona Department of Health Services do not agree on health policy, he said. There are mixed messages about guidelines among departments and this creates confusion for recipients of funds, according to Pace.
“What happens is that you take a long-term care facility who is receiving Medicaid dollars, is registered by the Arizona Department of Health, and is also part of a skilled nursing facility receiving CMS dollars — who do they follow?” he said. “I would love for us going forward to look at these complex situations and say ‘who should a physician or a provider listen to?’”
He believes providers should be able to make their own independent decisions about what steps to take in their health care provision.