Columbus Dispatch: Column: State and local aid must be in next relief package

Julie Albers, Guest columnist
Posted Jul 24, 2020 at 4:15 AM

We’re halfway through 2020, and it’s clear that this pandemic is far from over. People are torn between a desire to return to some form of normalcy and the fear of a virus that is still spreading and killing people.

Business owners are in limbo, their doors shuttered by stay-at-home orders that have saved thousands of lives but have also frozen the economy. Unemployed Americans are desperate to return to work, but want to make sure they will have the protection and support they need to stay safe and healthy while they do their jobs.

As a respiratory therapist at a public hospital for nearly 30 years, I have never before seen the level of devastation facing communities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. But even those who manage to avoid infection won’t escape the economic impact of COVID-19.

State and local budgets are straining under the increased demand for services and shrinking resources, forcing cuts to programs that people need even more under COVID-19. Without $1 trillion in aid, we will undercut any chance that the economy recovers anywhere near as fast as it fell apart. It is a big number, but that is how big a mess we are in.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers in Congress are divided about whether to move forward on more relief and recovery funding immediately or “wait and see” just how bad things can get before intervening, even though nearly 140,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and a second, potentially more deadly wave is expected this the fall. Republicans in the Senate are twiddling their thumbs when they should be passing emergency funding to help states and local governments close budget shortfalls.

If deep budget shortfalls lead to funding cuts for health care and our hospital, we could see personal protective equipment shortages for health care providers, staffing cuts that can force burnout and diminished quality of care and more patients delaying or going without treatment.

Instead of addressing the massive budget shortfalls that will lead to harsh cuts, President Trump and the leaders of his party think they’ve done enough and are content to just wish away the pandemic and its serious consequences. We cannot maintain the essential public services that communities in Ohio depend on — including quality care from our hospitals — without significantly more support for states and localities.

My hospital primarily serves low-income patients on Medicaid. Losing funding for our services would leave many of them with nowhere else to go and no health care during the biggest public health crisis in a century.

My colleagues and I will do everything possible to help every person who comes through our door for as long as we can, but funding cuts will not only make our job harder, they will worsen the health of our patients.

And it’s not just health care that’s at risk because of budget shortfalls. Cuts will mean 911 calls take longer to be answered, roads and bridges are left un-repaired, schools don’t have the funds to safely reopen to students and the programs that disadvantaged communities that have already faced the greatest impact from the pandemic are underfunded. To make matters worse, without federal assistance, more than 2 million workers will lose their jobs. That’s in addition to the 20 million Americans who are already unemployed.

Without those workers and the services they provide, economic recovery will be more uphill, take longer and hurt more people. Denying our tax dollars to our own communities will force cuts to public services that we need to reopen the economy, help businesses and get people back to work.

The impacts of those budget cuts will be felt far beyond the immediate future. By refusing to provide federal aid to states and localities, Republican leaders in Washington are putting frontline workers at risk and undermining public health and economic recovery.

Stalling and complacency from elected officials in Congress won’t help us beat COVID-19. Americans need immediate action on federal legislation that provides funding to states and localities immediately.

Julie Albers is a respiratory therapist at a Cleveland hospital and president of her local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

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