Policy and administrative changes continue to move quickly at the state and federal level in response to COVID-19. Arkansas Advocates for Children Families will work to keep you updated on policy news at the end of each week.
Click here to see AACF’s short-term recommendations for addressing the crisis at the state level. More pandemic-related blogs and publications are available here.
During a press conference earlier this week, Governor Hutchinson was asked about the state’s plans for reopening schools in the fall. There is currently not a date set to reopen schools. But the Governor said he has meet with Secretary Johnny Key about reopening and received comments and ideas from school administrators, teachers, and parents. He said he does hope to have a full schedule of in-class instruction next year. For students attending colleges and universities, the state is creating a plan to rapidly test students, trace contacts, and isolate students, if needed.
SNAP Benefits for Students Who’ve Lost Meals
Arkansas has applied to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to create a “Pandemic EBT” program, which will help families whose children would have received free or reduced-priced meals if school had been in session these last nine weeks. Created through the CARES Act in March, the pandemic program allows the state to send additional SNAP, or food stamp, benefits to families who were affected. The cost of meals children would have received – all the meals since schools closed and through the end of the academic year – will be replaced with additional SNAP benefits. It’s also available to children who would have received meals but whose families were not on SNAP or were ineligible before. So far, 24 states have been approved to create a program like this.
Voting by Mail
The Governor said that he is in favor of “no-excuse” absentee voting, and if the pandemic is occurring in November, he will use his emergency powers to allow it. Currently, to vote absentee in Arkansas, you must have an “excuse,” such as being deployed in the military or having an illness that would make you unable to go to your polling place on election day. “No-excuse” absentee voting would allow anyone to vote absentee, with a mail-in ballot, without providing a reason for doing so.
Temporary Moratorium on Cancellation of Health and Life Insurance Policies for Some Impacted by COVID-19
The state took steps this week to ensure that those diagnosed with COVID-19, or who lost work because of the pandemic, don’t lose their personal health or life insurance because they miss payments. On Monday, the Arkansas Insurance Department issued a bulletin placing a 45-day moratorium on the cancellation or non-renewal of personal life and health insurance policies for people with COVID-19. It also applies to those who are no longer employed or have had their pay reduced as a consequence of COVID-19. Those affected must make a request to have this extension on their payment. The bulletin also requests that insurance companies consider that people diagnosed with COVID-19 may not be in a position to receive the payment notices.
Getting to 60,000 Tests
Collectively, community health centers throughout Arkansas have pledged to conduct 2,000 tests per week as part of the state’s goal of testing 60,000 Arkansans, or 2 percent of the population, in May. Testing can be provided for free for those who are uninsured. Walmart has also added new testing sites and is now testing in Bentonville, Little Rock, Fort Smith, West Memphis, Jonesboro, Hot Springs, and Texarkana. Testing is also available at Arkansas hospitals. You can find testing sites using the state’s new COVID-19 website ar.gov/covid.
Unemployment Benefits in Arkansas
In addition to traditional Unemployment Insurance, the federal CARES Act created several new unemployment programs. According to Commerce Secretary Mike Preston, since the start of the crisis Arkansas has made $109 million in payments for traditional Unemployment Insurance through the state’s trust fund; $248 million in payments through the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program, which provided an additional $600 per person, per week in unemployment benefits; and $500,000 through the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program, which provided an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits for people who had exhausted their unemployment funds. The total for all unemployment benefits so far is approximately $357.9 million. Since opening the website to accept applications for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for gig and self-employed workers, the state has received some 30,000 applications. They hope that payments for the program will begin going out next week.
Arkansas Ready for Business Grant Program
At the start of the week, Secretary Preston gave a breakdown of the applications the state received for the Ready for Business Grant Program, which will help businesses pay for expenses related to reopening after state-mandated closures around COVID-19. The state received 12,300 applications totaling $147.7 million. Most applications, 94 percent, were from business with 50 or fewer employees; and 46 percent of applications were from women- and minority-owned businesses.
Cases of COVID-19
The numbers of community-spread cases of COVID-19 continued to rise this week, prompting Governor Hutchinson to say the state is not yet ready to open more business and activities in Phase 2 of reopening. He also stated, however, he does not anticipate rolling-back Phase 1. You can find the most recent COVID-19 data for Arkansas, including demographic and location data, here. The updated numbers are in the middle of that webpage below “ADH COVID-19 Status Updates.”
Reopening the Economy
After Monday, with the exception of bars, all retail stores can open for business. An announcement for reopening bars will be made on Monday. The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce created this guide that outlines the dates that different types of businesses can reopen and links to the detailed directives that outline the rules and guidelines for reopening. Delta Dental of Arkansas will offer financial relief to dental providers who were unable to practice during Phase 1 of the reopening process and may have extra pandemic related expenses in order to reopen after May 11.
An analysis from the National Women’s Law Center found that women, and particularly women of color, have been disproportionately impacted by the recent jobs losses. The analysis noted “women made up 49 percent of the overall workforce, but accounted for 55 percent of job losses in April.” During that time, the unemployment rate for black women rose to 16.4 percent and rose to 20.2 percent for Latinas while the unemployment rate for white men was 12.4 percent.
Members of Congress are working on a new round of coronavirus relief legislation, the HEROES Act. The U.S. House of Representatives is voting today on the bill, which would:
- Provide more assistance to state and local governments, which have seen steep drops in revenue. In Arkansas, state and local budgets – especially local governments – rely heavily on sales tax revenue, which has plummeted.
- Create a new round of individual relief funding with the distribution of $1,200 to every family member in a household, including dependent children, up to $6,000 per household. Importantly, it would include payments to immigrant households that pay taxes, which were left out last time.
- Restore Medicaid eligibility for Compact of Free Association (COFA) migrants and others who were barred from coverage as part of a 1996 federal law. This is of particular significance in Arkansas, which has a relatively large population of Marshallese migrants who are COFA citizens. This would allow Marshallese-born adults to qualify for Medicaid if they met other eligibility requirements. Currently, only children qualify for such coverage.
- Provide hazard pay for frontline workers. Under this provision, employers would be able to apply for grants to provide $13 per-hour pay premiums to essential workers on top of their regular wages. The funding would come from grants of $5,000 to $10,000 per worker (the higher amount would be for lower-paid employers)
- Include a temporary 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits and raise the minimum amount people can receive.
- Place a moratorium on eviction filings and home repossessions for 12 months.
- Provide $850 million to states that could be used for payments to child care workers.
- Extend extra unemployment benefits ($600 per week) until the end of the year.
- Provide student debt relief, payments to farmers, as well as a list of other relief proposals.
- Increase, for the second time in the current crisis, the federal government’s share of Medicaid spending. The federal government’s share was about 71 percent before the crisis, with the state paying the rest. Previous COVID relief legislation increased that percentage to almost 77 percent, and this proposed change would take the federal share to 85 percent, easing the state’s burden on health spending. The changes are temporary.
- Create a special enrollment period of 8 weeks for purchase of insurance through the federal Marketplace.
- Add protections for home health workers (PPE, transportation and outreach, etc.).
- Require Medicaid coverage of non-emergency medical transportation.
- Provide Medicaid coverage 30 days pre-release from prison.
- Provide Medicaid coverage with no cost-sharing for COVID-19 vaccine and treatment, including “the treatment of a condition that may complicate the treatment of COVID-19.”
- Require the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services to report on race and ethnicity rates of COVID-19 testing, hospitalization, and deaths, proposing strategies to reduce disparities related to COVID-19.
The U.S. Census Bureau is beginning to restart some field operations that had halted because of the pandemic. Arkansas currently has a 54 percent self-response rate. Arkansas receives approximately $10 billion in federal funds each year, based in whole or in part to census data. For each person not counted the state could lose $33,000 over the next decade. Arkansas Advocates has created a list of resources for your census outreach.
Children’s HealthWatch Virtual Town Hall-The (Not So) Great Equalizer: The Disparate Impact of COVID-19 on Marginalized Communitie: On Tuesday, May 19 at 11:00am CT, learn about the economic fallout created by the pandemic and its impact on the health of low-income children and families, particularly in immigrant families and communities of color, and the unique role Children’s HealthWatch is playing in creating equitable responses to the crisis. This is part of their year-long series on equity, why it matters, and what a truly equitable society would look like. Register here.
Arkansas United COVID-19 Page in Spanish: Para información sobre COVID-19 en Español
Marshallese Education Initiative COVID-19 Page in Marshallese: Ñan melele ko ikijeen COVID-19 ilo kajin Majõl
Marshallese Call-In Line: UAMS Northwest has a dedicated call-in center for people who speak Marshallese and suspect they need a COVID-19 test. Calls will be answered from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. The number is (479) 713-8708. UAMS has also established an interpretation line for health care providers to use if they need help serving Marshallese patients. It’s available 24 hours a day. For more information about that resource (for health providers only), contact Stacia Dean at SNDean (at) uams.edu or Betsy O’Connor at GEOconnor (at) uams.edu.
Applying for Assistance Programs: Legal Aid of Arkansas created a fact sheet breaking down how to apply for Medicaid, SNAP food assistance, and unemployment benefits. A Spanish version is here. Legal Aid has also created a comprehensive guide, which is available here in Spanish.
Receiving Stimulus Payments: Arkansas Advocates created a fact sheet on how to receive the federal Economic Impact Payment from the CARES Act.
Applying for Health Care Coverage After Losing a Job: People who have lost their workplace health care coverage in the last 60 days due to the pandemic may be eligible for a marketplace qualifying health plan. You can determine your options with the Arkansas Insurance Department at 1-844-355-3262 or www.myarinsurance.com.
Guidance for those with Underlying Health Conditions: The CDC has produced these guidelines for those with underlying health conditions during the COVID-19 crisis.
Arkansas 211: 211 is a free, statewide telephone service that connects individuals in need to important community services in the state of Arkansas like food pantries, health programs, crisis intervention, shelters, and more. Just call “211.”
Bank On Arkansas+: For individuals and families without bank accounts who would like to open an account to receive federal emergency payments more quickly, Bank On Arkansas+ connects individuals with banks and credit unions that offer checking accounts that are certified safe, affordable and provide direct deposit to receive payments electronically. You can find more information here.
Applying for Unemployment Insurance: There is a new option to apply for unemployment insurance online or by phone. You can apply here.
Self-Employed Workers Unemployment Assistance: Gig and self-employed workers can now apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance here.
Applying for Medicaid, ARKids First (children’s health insurance), or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps): The Department of Human Services has made changes encouraging the public to avoid in-person visits to DHS county offices and is allowing fewer people in the lobbies at the same time, increasing wait times. People are encouraged to apply online at www.Access.Arkansas.gov or to use the phone application option by calling 1-855-372-1084. County offices will be installing drop-off boxes for paper applications. And required SNAP interviews may be conducted by phone rather than in person.
WIC (nutrition assistance program for Women, Infants and Children): Contact your county Department of Health office for information on how to apply.
Department of Health Updates: You can get the latest COVID-19 updates from the Department of Health here.
Finding a food pantry: Some pantries may be closed, so call ahead to confirm.
Arkansas Foodbank pantry map
Food Bank of Northeast Arkansas food pantry network
Harvest Regional Food Bank (Texarkana)
Food Bank of North Central Arkansas
Northwest Arkansas Food Bank
River Valley Regional Food Bank