By Zhihan Yang
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON — Human service workforce development should be a focus of American Rescue Plan Act funds, Cape Cod lawmakers and public health advocates said during a virtual legislative hearing focused on where and how Massachusetts should spend the pandemic-related federal aid.
Massachusetts will receive $5.3 billion from the federal program passed by Congress earlier this year. Lawmakers are conducting hearings to determine priorities for the bulk of the money not already allocated by Gov. Charlie Baker.
“I think everything is a priority really,” said Rep. Kip Diggs, D-Barnstable, after last week’s hearing that focused on human services. “Now I think that making sure that people are getting paid what they should be, being able to put people back to work is very, very, very important.”
According to Diggs, some local service providers earn a little above minimum wage, which is “not acceptable” for him.
“We all have to acknowledge that probably the greatest barrier toward moving in the direction we want to move is the rates that we pay our providers,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman, D-Arlington, during the hearing.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders divided the problem of the rates into “immediate” and “long-term.”
According to Sudders, in the short term, the Baker administration has used $55 million from ARPA to fund a 10% rate increase for all health and human service providers that will last until December. In January, a bill will be filed to invest in primary and behavioral health care.
“That is the way forward, and it can’t be once every 10 years,” Sudders said. “We need to do systemic reforms on this.”
In addition to a rate increase, the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers called for additional funds on its career training programs to increase the workforce.
The Duffy Health Center in Hyannis is a part of the Massachusetts League network.
“We have now one nursing vacancy, and we only have two nurses,” said Heidi Nelson, the CEO. “Developing educational programs and things like loan repayment, and other kinds of incentives for people to go into nursing would be very helpful to us.”
Others who testified also called for a $251 million investment in public health from ARPA.
According to Attorney General Maura Healey, the fund can help to “decentralize local public health infrastructure and modernize it” through various ways, including improving workforce training, providing direct financial support, and developing a statewide data collection system.
Though not the focus of the hearing, Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, said that “the biggest challenge” for the Cape Cod workforce is the lack of housing.
“We have quite a few hurdles to take care of,” Diggs added. “I … see the money is going to the housing, making sure people are getting paid the way that they are supposed to get paid, making sure that people that are in any danger, they can get a little bit of extra money also.”
This article originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times.