Delegation Members Urge Disaster Declaration for Minnesota

U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Tina Smith (D-MN), and Representatives Angie Craig (D-MN-02), Dean Phillips (D-MN-03), Betty McCollum (D-MN-04), Ilhan Omar (D-MN-05), Tom Emmer (R-MN-06), and Pete Stauber (R-MN-08) urged the Trump Administration to approve Minnesota’s request for a major disaster declaration due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The letter, sent to the White House yesterday, can be read in full here.

“All of Minnesota’s 87 counties and 11 tribes have been affected by the spread of the pandemic,” the lawmakers wrote. “As of April 5, the State had 935 positive cases and 29 deaths, with those affected ranging in age from 4 months to 104 years old. Minnesota’s health care facilities are confronting a lack of needed supplies and limited capacity, which will be exacerbated by a limited number of qualified medical staff that is expected to decrease further as the pandemic continues to spread.”

Fourth Relief Package in Flux as Leaders Triangulate

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has scaled back her ambitions for Congress‘s next coronavirus stimulus package to focus on additional direct payments to individuals and expanded loans to businesses, possibly leaving an $800 billion infrastructure plan and other priorities for a later bill. Speaker Pelosi released a statement on Friday saying that Congress will need to build on the last relief package, the CARES Act.

Even amid the urgency of the virus response, Pelosi promised to continue working “on an infrastructure package for recovery that addresses some of the critical impacts and vulnerabilities in America that have been laid bare by the coronavirus.” In a letter to House lawmakers this weekend, the Speaker said communities in the U.S. “cannot afford to wait” for the next coronavirus stimulus.

Yet there is not consensus on what the next stimulus should look like. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Associated Press in a recent interview that there will be a fourth virus-related bill, but said he and Speaker Pelosi have a “different point of view” about the timing of the next package and what should be included. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said he did not think a fourth tranche of aid “is appropriate at this time,” adding that a “tweak” to the most recent legislation might be better.

Community Health Centers Outline Multi-Billion Dollar Needs

House Democrats want to inject an emergency $10 billion into the federal community health center (CHC) program, reflecting the growing demand for money from clinics and hospitals as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. CHC costs are mounting as hundreds of thousands of Americans are confirmed to have contracted Covid-19. Community health centers, like hospitals, are forgoing more lucrative services such as dental care to take care of Covid-19 patients.

The National Association for Community Health Centers (NACHC) originally asked Congress for $3.2 billion and received $1.3 billion as part of the $2 trillion economic rescue package signed into law in late March. NACHC leaders have said health center needs have grown significantly in recent weeks and will be asking for more in the next expected coronavirus package.

The group is now asking for a total of $77.3 billion, which would include a five-year extension for the program. House Democrats are saying that the $10 billion they are proposing for community health centers would be targeted to capital costs and improvements for the centers.

HHS Secretary: Hospitals Cannot Charge Uninsured Patients Treated for Virus

Hospitals and health care providers that accept federal money provided through the $2 trillion coronavirus spending package are not allowed to bill uninsured patients treated for Covid-19, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said last week. The providers will be reimbursed at Medicare rates, Azar said, which will be carved out of a $100 billion slice of last month’s CARES Act.

When probed about re-opening enrollment for Affordable Care Act plans or potentially expanding Medicaid, Secretary Azar demurred. Those who have recently lost their employer-provided health insurance can enroll through the ACA’s exchanges under the law’s special enrollment rules, he said. President Trump also announced Friday that Blue Cross and Blue Shield agreed to waive cost-sharing for Covid-19 treatment for their customers, matching promises from other insurers.

House Virus Committee Would Add New Layer of Oversight

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her chamber will create a special committee to oversee the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, including how the $2.2 trillion from last month’s stimulus plan is spent. The Speaker said that the bipartisan committee, to be led by third-ranking Democrat James Clyburn, will also seek to ensure that steps are taken based on science and to protect against price gouging of essential materials in the broader economy.

This House committee would be separate from the layers of oversight included in the stimulus bill Congress passed last week. That law mandates a special inspector general, an accountability committee of relevant government departments and a five-person panel appointed by Congress to oversee part of the federal aid for companies.

House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and top Energy and Commerce Republican Greg Walden said in a telephone news conference that an additional House panel to oversee the coronavirus response is unnecessary.

Trump Says CDC Suggests Use of Cloth Masks to Prevent Virus

President Trump said late last week that top U.S. health officials are recommending the use of non-surgical grade cloth masks as a voluntary measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but that he did not plan to wear on himself. “It’s only a recommendation,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday. “You don’t have to do it.”

The announcement marks a reversal for health officials, who have previously said that those without symptoms did not need to wear a mask. Trump said the advice on masks, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not alter guidelines calling for social distancing. The President emphasized that the CDC is not recommending the use of commercial medical-grade masks, which are in short supply at hospitals.