Ohio’s pandemic year report cardMar 21, 2021
This opinion piece was first published in The Lima News.
What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the coronavirus pandemic had already restricted travel, sent students home, canceled college’s March Madness basketball tournament, and prompted Gov. Mike DeWine to issue a “stay-at-home” order to slow the spread of the virus.
One year later, as Ohio continues to recover from the pandemic’s health, civic, and economic effects, it is worth applauding what has been achieved — and encouraging what more can be accomplished.
Gov. DeWine recognized that stay-at-home orders would significantly affect families, businesses, and state revenues. He then prudently curbed public spending and froze government hiring for all non-health and non-safety positions. He froze government pay and most new contracts, suspended staff promotions, and ordered state agencies to reduce unnecessary spending by up to 20 percent. Those bold strokes of the pen preserved state funds needed for public health and kept state spending obligations in check.
As the pandemic persisted, the state made other smart but temporary moves that policymakers should revisit and make permanent even as we recover from the worst side-effects of the crisis.
Under emergency orders, for example, Ohio expanded access to telehealth and allowed out-of-state doctors and nurses to treat patients here. Telehealth has proven popular among patients and care providers — reducing the costs, inconvenience, and public health risks of in-person medical visits — and it should be here to stay. Unfortunately, once the emergency order expires, telehealth will only be available to Medicaid patients, not the privately insured. The legislature should fix that problem.
Likewise, Ohio’s medical boards wisely gave licensed medical professionals from other states temporary permission to practice and treat patients here during the pandemic. Our occupational “permission slip” policy should be overhauled and replaced with universal licensing recognition. But until then, Ohio should make the temporary recognition of out-of-state medical practitioners permanent. Senate bills would have Ohio join multi-state compacts for doctors and nurses, and the legislature should adopt these policies.
Similarly, emergency provisions now allow pharmacists to test and vaccinate for COVID-19. Such permission should be permanent. An estimated 90 percent of Americans live within two miles of a pharmacy, so authorizing pharmacists to administer vaccines would make pharmacies critical access points for testing, prevention, and treatment — especially in rural areas.
Permanently adopting successful, temporary emergency orders already has some precedent. Hospitality businesses have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. To help them survive, Ohio temporarily suspended an unnecessary rule that kept bars and restaurants from selling or delivering alcoholic beverages on carryout menus. In October, with The Buckeye Institute’s encouragement, Gov. DeWine made the temporary suspension permanent by signing House Bill 669.
Gov. DeWine also followed Buckeye’s advice to provide responsible businesses, schools, and workers with critical liability protections from COVID-19 lawsuits. As Buckeye observed at the bill’s signing, liability protection under the law will help Ohio’s economic recovery by giving enterprises and their employees confidence to re-open and return to work without fearing COVID-related lawsuits.
These policy successes offer a silver lining to the pandemic’s otherwise dark cloud. And Ohio can and should build upon them.
Policymakers, for example, should continue to spend taxpayer money carefully and resist the understandable temptation to use temporary federal aid to create long-term spending programs. Smart decisions to cut unnecessary spending today will ensure a quicker, healthier economic recovery tomorrow.
Ohio can also extend its successful strategy to use federal relief funds to expand broadband internet access in rural areas. Broadband is essential for telehealth, telework, remote-learning platforms, and e-commerce. But some Ohio communities remain underserved and require strategic public-private partnerships for broadband expansion.
Finally, as the pandemic up-ends K-12 education, families face unexpected costs, expensive tutors, technical difficulties, and challenging new learning environments. And they are re-evaluating their educational options accordingly. Ohio can ease these burdens with a student-first funding approach that will make options and money more available to families through education savings accounts. Now more than ever students need educational resources tailored to their needs, not the public school district’s, and commonsense funding reforms can help.
Ohio has come a long way since last March and smart policy decisions will continue to pave the way to a post-pandemic recovery.
Rea S. Hederman Jr. is the executive director of the Economic Research Center and vice president of policy at The Buckeye Institute in Columbus.