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State to fund hotline mired in controversy for COVID-19 information

The viral pandemic is finally getting the state to fund a hotline that has been mired in controversy for years.

But there will be restrictions on what those seeking information can be told about abortions.

Gov. Doug Ducey said Sunday he is allocating $2 million from the Department of Economic Security for the state to contract with the Crisis Response Center to run a 2-1-1 service to provide information on COVID-19. The idea, according to a press release from the governor, is to provide a single “entry point” to field questions and concerns from Arizona residents about the virus.

“With this hotline launch, Arizonans can get important COVID-19 related information in English and Spanish by simply dialing 2-1-1,” Ducey said in a prepared statement.

The governor’s unilateral move to use state dollars comes as legislation to come up with $1.5 million for the 2-1-1 service stalled in the Senate amid disputes about what kind of information those staffing the hotline could provide.

Arizona used to fund the phone and online service until the recession.

Lobbyist Don Isaacson said United Way has picked up the cost in the interim. He said, though, it can afford line operators only several days a week, and not around the clock.

SB 1328, which would restore sufficient funding for expanded operations, cleared the Appropriations Committee more than a month ago on a 5-4 vote.

But it contains a provision, demanded by an anti-abortion organization, that those providing information about where they can get services are specifically prohibited from helping women find out where they can go to terminate a pregnancy. In fact, it bars any referral to Planned Parenthood or any other organization that performs abortions, even if the request is for something else like a health checkup.

An aide to Ducey said the same restrictions will apply now.

“Consistent with state policy … funds received under this contract cannot be used to make referrals to abortion services,” said Patrick Ptak.

Ducey, in his release, said the hotline will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week and can be reached by dialing 2-1-1 while in Arizona. Access also can be gained online at 211arizona.org.

Callers can be connected to individuals and organizations who can answer a variety of questions such as:

▪ How to prepare for and prevent COVID-19 spread;

▪ Testing information for the virus;

▪ Which groups are at higher risk;

▪ What to do if an individual gets sick;

▪ COVID-19 and animals.

There also will be links to websites with “accurate, reliable and up-to-date information.”

The announcement comes as lawmakers reconvene Monday in a bid to adopt a “baseline” budget to keep the state running beyond June 30 in case the Legislature has to adjourn due to the virus.

State senators gave approval Thursday on a 28-2 vote.

But the package also included $50 million for the governor to use, at his discretion, to provide services ranging from preventing evictions and foreclosures and funding services for the homeless to cash for food bank operations and economic assistance to health care providers, nonprofit organizations and businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

That proved unacceptable to House Republicans who instead adopted their own plan — without the additional dollars — and sent it to the Senate.

Republican legislative leaders are set to meet Monday to see if they can break the stalemate.

There is a danger that the continued spread of the virus could end up affecting lawmakers, potentially leaving them short of the votes they need for a plan.

At last count there were 152 confirmed cases statewide, including two deaths, both in Maricopa County and both to people state health officials said had other underlying medical issues.

 

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