Council approves state use of US aid for broadband and beds

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The Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday authorized requests to spend federal bailout funds, including on covid-19 issues and $ 120 million to fund grants to help pay for large-scale projects. band ready to go across the state.

The council also authorized its co-chairs to authorize the use of up to an additional $ 27 million of those federal funds for other broadband grants once technical reviews of proposed projects are completed.

The council approved the state Department of Health’s request to use $ 90.8 million of US bailout funds – obtained through a grant from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to coronavirus testing in public schools.

The Department of Health’s request to use $ 18.1 million to help hospitals open 54 additional intensive care beds for Covid-19 patients also won council approval on Friday.

In March, President Joe Biden enacted the $ 1.9 trillion US bailout law, designed to help the United States recover from the economic and health effects of the pandemic.

The Legislative Council voted to grant the state Department of Commerce the power to use up to $ 120 million in rescue funds for 34 Arkansas Rural Connect broadband grant proposals for projects that state officials have determined it as “ready for implementation.”

The largest grants offered among the 34 are $ 10.7 million for Grant County and Internet service provider Windstream; $ 10.4 million for Independent County North and Internet provider Hillbilly Wireless; $ 7.5 million for Faulkner County and Windstream; and $ 7 million for Sevier County and Windstream.

The board also authorized its co-chairs, Senator Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, to approve the use of $ 27 million for the remaining 12 broadband grants, after each project have completed the technical review by the University of Arkansas Institute for Digital Health and Innovation for Medical Sciences and they are considered “out-of-the-box.”

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The largest grants offered among the 12 are $ 9 million for Perry County and Windstream; $ 7.6 million for South Independence County and Internet service provider Ritter; and $ 5.9 million for Ashley County and CableSouth Media3 SwyftConnect.

The council also requested the Ministry of Commerce to have the executive subcommittee of the council to review the proposed contract for the consultant that the ministry intends to hire to develop a broadband plan to scale the council. ‘State.

The executive subcommittee’s decision “would be the final decision rather than waiting for the review committee to meet,” said Senator Missy Irvin, of R-Mountain Home, who had the motion approved by the board.

“We want this project to be accelerated and we want it to be completed as soon as possible.”

At the request of some lawmakers, the Commerce Department issued a request for proposals to hire a consultant to develop a statewide broadband plan “and try to put a pause button on it.” said Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

The RFP indicates that this is a collaborative effort with the Department of Commerce; the Ministry of Parks, Heritage and Tourism; and the Ministry of Finance and Administration.

CostQuest Associates Inc., Deloitte Consulting LLP and Broadband Development Group LLC have submitted proposals for the contract, according to Alex Johnston, spokesperson for the Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Hammer asked when the contract for the consultant will be awarded.

“It is the opinion of some that we need a consultant who develops the holistic approach to move forward, and … if we let these [proposed broadband grant funds] from here on, this will be done with the understanding that the tender will be completed and a consultant will be hired to review in the future what our plan is for the implementation of the rest of the broadband projects. “, did he declare.

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Leslie Fisken, head of legislative affairs at the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, said state officials have a target date of September 17 to announce their intention to award a consultant contract.

Irvin said the broadband partnership is important as well as “ensuring that we are working in concert with the Department of Commerce and [Arkansas Economic Development Commission] So.”

She said the UAMS Institute for Digital Health and Innovation “is truly the trusted brain on broadband in the state of Arkansas.” The institute conducts technical reviews of the Arkansas Rural Connect Broadband Grants Program and also administers the state’s Rural Identification Broadband Grants Program, she said.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program has awarded $ 118.1 million in broadband grants in fiscal 2021 which ended June 30 and $ 30.7 million in broadband grants so far in during fiscal year 2022, which began on July 1.

SCHOOL TESTS

The Legislative Council on Friday authorized the Department of Health to use $ 90.8 million in federal funds from the CDC to provide testing resources to school districts to quickly identify cases and mitigate the spread of the virus in schools. The funding period for the federal grant runs from August 1 to July 31, 2022.

In response to the virus outbreak, Congress has allocated additional emergency funds under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to provide beneficiaries with the option to pay for comprehensive testing for classes from kindergarten to kindergarten. the 12th, according to the Ministry of Health.

The department said it plans to use the funds to increase salaries or other costs associated with performing pandemic-specific tasks, such as coordinating testing for students and staff, communication of important information on testing and collaboration with the department.

The department said it also intends to use the funds for surveillance testing programs from third-party providers for school districts that wish to participate in such a program.

Senator Jonathan Dissman, R-Searcy, asked if the Department of Health would hire suppliers through tenders or through a sole source contract.

Renee Mallory, the department’s chief of staff, said the department intended to solicit bids and the goal was to hire a supplier.

Dismang asked if the department had ever had discussions with a supplier.

The department’s public health programs policy coordinator, Phillip Gilmore, said many providers have contacted the department, “but we have not yet had formal discussions with them.”

ICU BEDS

Without questions or discussion, the Legislative Council approved the Department of Health’s request to use $ 18.1 million in rescue funds to help hospitals fill 54 additional intensive care beds.

The request includes:

• $ 12.42 million at CHI St. Vincent’s Little Rock Campus for 24 beds and CHI St. Vincent’s Hot Springs Campus for 12 beds, both for 60 days at $ 5,750 per bed per day.

• $ 3 million at St. Bernards Medical Center in Jonesboro for 10 beds for 60 days at $ 5,000 per bed per day.

• $ 2.736 million at the Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff for eight beds for 60 days at $ 5,700 per bed per day.

Over the past two weeks, COVIDComm – a system that helps find beds for coronavirus patients – reported that there were only a few days in which an intensive care bed could be quickly identified for a patient requiring transfer, Health Secretary Jose Romero said on Wednesday. .

This means patients have to wait in the emergency room before being hospitalized or having access to an intensive care bed, he said.


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