State innovators can help us cope with this pandemic

Quin Hillyer Mar 23, 2020

This column appeared in the Washington Examiner.

State governments, and state-based think tanks that focus on them, can innovate to help handle the coronavirus pandemic. In so doing, they also prove the benefits of the U.S. system of federalism, which keeps substantial powers in the hands of the states rather than centralizing all administrative authority in the nation’s capital.

For example, the conservative Buckeye Institute, a think tank in Ohio, released an insightful policy brief on Monday that suggests five ways Ohio can better deal with the public health part of the crisis, along with four policies that can mitigate the severity of economic affliction. While the suggestions are Ohio-specific, other states certainly could, and in most cases probably should, emulate them.

The suggestions are based on a recognition that in a crisis, credentialing formalities may be less important than people’s actual skill sets. Some of their recommendations are the equivalent of an “all hands on deck” order when a ship is in distress.

The first two proposals, both eminently sensible, would allow physicians licensed in one state to practice in all states, at least while the crisis continues. Clearly, the outbreak is worse in some states than others. If doctors in those more heavily afflicted states are overburdened, then physicians from other states should be able to drive in and help, without worrying about the formalities of state licensure.

Likewise, medical students and physicians may not be fully trained in all areas of medicine, but they have skills and expertise that might be put to better use, at least in assisting doctors on the front lines. The Buckeye Institute reasonably says we should use them.

Meanwhile, in hard-hit Louisiana, the Pelican Institute (on whose board I briefly served), has produced its own list of suggestions for that badly affected state. In addition to allowing out-of-state medical personnel to help in Louisiana, Pelican suggests allowing an extra 30 days of prescriptions for each order (so that senior citizens especially could stay indoors rather than going to the pharmacy), allow drone delivery of medications, and (for distance learning) waive right-of-way fees for broadband deployment.

The drone delivery idea is a particularly good example of federalism at work. “Louisiana is in the unique position of having laws on the books that allow for the leasing of airspace to drone companies,” the Pelican Institute notes. State innovations like that not only let states respond more readily to local conditions, but also serve as laboratories other states can copy if such innovations work. If Louisiana has success with this, other states can do the same without needing to burden Washington, D.C., with yet more requests for an already difficult legislative agenda.

Federalism, by encouraging state and local creativity such as that offered by state think tanks, will allow this nation to be more flexible and nimble in fighting a pandemic. Once again, the wisdom of James Madison and other framers becomes both apparent and eminently laudable.