Proposed bipartisan bill provides more local funds to Public Health

Community outreach COVID-19 testing (PNC file photo)

Senator Mary Camacho Torres and Speaker Tina Muña Barnes have introduced a measure to provide local funds as necessary to the Bureau of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, to address the backlog in COVID-19 case investigations.

The Senators say while the Public Health department has been working tirelessly to improve contact tracing efforts, the agency remains significantly underfunded and overwhelmed, as repeatedly indicated at multiple oversight hearings.

To help address this issue, Bill No. 420-35 provides DPHSS funding support by appropriating $470,000 for its operations in Fiscal Year 2021, which may include, but not be limited to, the newly created Bureau of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The appropriation comes from funds remaining following the government of Guam’s full payment of the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) this year. While the Legislature had appropriated $14,898,000 for COLA payments in the FY21 Budget, Government of Guam Retirement Fund Director Paula Blas indicated that only $14,428,000 was expended to cover all retirees and COLA needs, leaving approximately half a million remaining in General Fund appropriations.

Senator Torres says this isn’t the first time she’s provided an appropriation to the public health department from an available funding source. During FY21 Budget deliberations, Torres introduced an amendment that appropriated an additional $1 million to DPHSS from the Healthy Futures Fund, restoring nearly half of the cuts to the agency.

“If we support a data-driven approach at public health, then we should be doing everything we can to make them whole,” said Senator Torres. “Given that COLA has been fully paid, and we have been assured by the GGRF that additional needs have been covered, I ask my colleagues for their swift support in aiding DPHSS’ response efforts to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Just like I did with Bill 400-35, I will continue to advocate for DPHSS and ensure that critical resources be provided to our front-liners,” said Speaker Tina Muña Barnes. “We need to make sure the lead agency in our fight against COVID-19 be given the resources they need to keep us safe.”

(News release from Senator Mary Camacho Torres)