In the predictably messy $2 trillion coronavirus response bill approved by Congress on Friday, one provision stands out as a particular travesty: the nonsensical way it distributes public health funding to the states.
The chief victim of this legislative malpractice is New York, which is ground zero for the pandemic in the United States.
The $150 billion “Coronavirus Relief Fund,” a late addition to the package, is supposed to cover states’ emergency costs related to the pandemic, which are piling up fast.
Yet New York, which accounts for almost half of the nation’s diagnosed coronavirus cases — and more than one-third of its deaths — is due to receive just 5% of the money, or $7.5 billion. The nation’s original hotspot, the state of Washington, is getting a paltry 2%, or $2.9 billion.
That’s not merely unfair, but dangerous. If federal lawmakers intend to minimize the loss of life, they should be directing their firehose where the flames are flaring highest, not wastefully sprinkling the entire countryside.
New York — and especially New York City — is sliding toward the nightmare that epidemiologists have warned about: Emergency rooms are overflowing. Hospitals beds are filling up. Ventilators needed to keep the sickest patients alive are running short. Health-care workers are rationing masks and gowns.
Worst of all, New Yorkers are dying by the hundreds — which could soon become thousands if the current trend continues. One hard-pressed hospital resorted to storing bodies in a refrigerated truck.
Bracing for worse to come, the state and city governments are scrambling to accelerate testing, set up temporary hospital space, bring in emergency personnel, drum up critical supplies and extend state-sponsored health coverage for those who need it — all of which will cost billions.
State officials estimate that they recently spent $600 million just on coronavirus-related supplies and equipment in a single week. No other part of the country is facing bills that large at this point in the outbreak.
That being the case, New York should have received the lion’s share of emergency public health funding from Washington. Instead, bill drafters in the Senate divided the money according to the usual political math of a legislative body in which all states, no matter how large or small, have the same two votes.
They started by guaranteeing at least $1.25 billion to each state — including Wyoming, whose population is about one-fifth of Brooklyn’s. As of this writing, it had recorded a mere 70 cases of coronavirus and, thankfully, not a single death.
The Senate allocated the rest of the money in proportion to population, which is only marginally more sensible — because the coronavirus has paid no attention to demographics. Medium-sized Washington and Louisiana have each lost more citizens that the two largest states, California and Texas, combined.
The absurd result of this formula is that South Dakota is due to receive about $24 million for each diagnosed case within its borders, while New York will get just $168,000.
When Cuomo complained about the lack of fiscal relief for the state government — whose fiscal year starts on Tuesday — New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand defensively replied that the relief fund was meant for outbreak response, not budget balancing. Indeed, the stimulus bill specifies that the money can only be used for “necessary expenditures due to the public health emergency.”
But of course that makes the relief fund’s formula even less rational, because it does not even attempt to match the money to the need.
The bulk of the $2 trillion package seeks to mitigate economic losses for workers and businesses and allocates billions in extra funding for hospitals and other government functions. New York should get at least a reasonable share of those portions.
In terms of addressing the actual public health crisis — which should have been their most urgent priority — Congress, and especially the Senate, allowed bring-home-the-bacon politics to override the public good.
© 2020 New York Daily News