Senate Looks to Approve Coronavirus Bill This Week
The Senate this week will consider an economic relief plan, backed by President Trump, to deal with the spreading coronavirus. The House-passed package includes free testing for everyone who needs it, and two weeks of paid sick leave to allow people with the virus to stay home from work and avoid infecting co-workers. It also includes enhanced jobless benefits, increased food aid for children, senior citizens and food banks, and higher funding for Medicaid benefits. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that while the Senate works on the House bill, her chamber’s leaders will begin working on an additional emergency response measure.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement shortly after Saturday’s House vote that the Senate “will need to carefully review” the House measure. “I believe the vast majority of senators in both parties will agree we should act swiftly to secure relief for American workers, families, and small businesses,” he said. Leader McConnell said in a statement Sunday night that more work would likely be needed, and that he has talked to Senate committee heads about next steps. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will hold a second hearing tomorrow on the U.S. response to the outbreak. The exact timing of a Senate vote this week is still uncertain.
A Closer Look: Families First Coronavirus Response Act
On Saturday, March 14, the House passed a sweeping bill aimed at addressing the Coronavirus outbreak. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was passed on a vote of 363-40 and would provide $8.3 billion for relief efforts. All members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation voted in favor of the bill, with the exception of Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN-06) who cited the “abrupt and haphazard” actions of the House in a press release explaining his vote. A number of highlights from the bill can be found below:
- More than $3 billion for research and development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
- Nearly $1 billion for procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, to support healthcare preparedness and Community Health Centers, and to improve medical surge capacity.
- An estimated $7 billion in low-interest loans to affected small businesses, to help cushion the economic blow of the public health emergency.
- $300 million so the government can purchase vaccines at a fair and reasonable price.
- The measure would appropriate $250 million for Health and Human Services Department programs that aid elderly Americans.
- States would be eligible for a 6.2 percentage point increase in their federal medical assistance percentages.
- Insurers would be required to cover coronavirus tests and related services, such as provider visits for testing, without cost-sharing or prior authorization requirements.
> The cost-sharing prohibition would also apply to Medicaid, Medicare, TRICARE, veterans’ health programs, the Indian Health Service, and coverage provided to federal civilian employees.
- Supplemental funds for federal nutrition assistance programs:
> $500 million in emergency funding for the WIC program.
> $400 million for the Commodity Assistance Program for the emergency food assistance program, $100 million of which could be used for costs related to the distribution of goods.
- The measure would waive federal work requirements for SNAP eligibility.
> States that make their own emergency or disaster declarations related to COVID-19 could request emergency allotments of food aid to support increased participation in SNAP and address temporary food needs.
- The agreement would create an emergency paid leave program to directly respond to the coronavirus.
> Private sector employers with fewer than 500 workers and government entities would have to provide as many as 12 weeks of job-protected leave.
> Full-time employees would receive 80 hours of sick leave under the new emergency leave program and part-time workers would be granted time off that’s equivalent to their scheduled or normal work hours in a two-week period.
> Small businesses with fewer than 50 employees would be exempt through authorized Labor Department regulations.
- The measure would provide payroll tax credits to employers to cover wages paid to employees while they are taking time off under the bill’s sick leave and family leave programs.
- The measure would provide as much as $1 billion for emergency transfers to states in fiscal 2020 to process and pay unemployment benefits.
Local Government Impacts
• The bill would ensure that state and local governments are reimbursed for costs incurred while assisting the federal response.
- It would also include a requirement to reimburse $136 million to important health accounts, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment and prevention, and heating and cooling assistance for low-income families.
- $25 million cooperative agreement to the states and local jurisdictions who have borne the largest burden of response and preparedness activities to date.
- $10 million cooperative agreement to state and local jurisdictions to begin implementation of coronavirus surveillance across the U.S., building on existing influenza activities and other surveillance systems.
- For more information on local government provisions of the bill, see theNational League of Cities Response Resourcespage.
White House Aide Warns Spike in Virus Cases Coming
Expanding testing for the coronavirus in the U.S. will result in a “spike in the curve” over the next week as more cases are uncovered, a top White House aide said. “For those of you who watched China, and China reporting, remember when they changed their definition and all of a sudden there was a blip in their curve? We are going to see that,” Dr. Deborah Birx, virus response coordinator, said at a weekend briefing by the White House coronavirus task force.
At least ten states now have the availability of drive-by testing for the coronavirus as tests ramp up nationwide after a slow start, said Vice President Mike Pence. It is important, as testing capacity increases, that the people “most in need” have priority access, the Vice President said. That would include first responders and health care workers. He also urged people who are symptom-free to not seek testing.
Fed Slashes Rates as U.S. Economy Braces for Virus
The Federal Reserve swept into action on Sunday in an effort to save the U.S. economy from the fallout of the coronavirus, slashing its benchmark interest rate by a full percentage point to near zero and promising to boost its bond holdings by at least $700 billion. Underlining the sense of urgency amid mounting recession fears, Fed Chairman Jerome Powell told a press briefing by telephone that the virus’s disruption to lives and businesses meant second quarter growth would probably be weak and it was hard to know how long the pain would last.
The Fed pulled out some of the biggest weapons in its arsenal. Its key rate is now zero to 0.25%, matching the record low level it hit during the 2008 financial crisis and where it was held until December 2015. The central bank also announced several other actions, including letting banks borrow from the discount window for as long as 90 days and reducing reserve requirement ratios to zero percent. In addition, it united with five other central banks to ensure dollars are available around the world via swap lines. Chairman Powell said that he did not think negative rates, which have been used in Europe and Japan, would be appropriate policy in the U.S.
IRS Expected to Delay Tax-Filing Deadline
The IRS and Treasury Department have not yet updated tax professionals and taxpayers about a possible change to the annual income tax filing deadline of April 15. The IRS is widely expected to announce an extended date for the deadline on Monday, March 16.
CDC Urges Scrapping Mass Gatherings For Eight Weeks
In the most extreme effort yet to slow the march of coronavirus in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that events of 50 people or more not be held for about two months. For the next eight weeks, organizers should cancel or postpone in-person events of that size throughout the U.S., the agency said on its website Sunday. When feasible, organizers could modify events to be virtual. “This recommendation is made in an attempt to reduce introduction of the virus into new communities and to slow the spread of infection in communities already affected by the virus,” the CDC said.
The advisory doesn’t apply to the day-to-day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses — although many of those entities have taken steps of their own. Instead, events such as conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, weddings, and other types of assemblies should be avoided, the CDC said. U.S. authorities are focusing on “flattening the curve” of the COVID-19 virus’s spread to prevent hospitals and other health care facilities from becoming overwhelmed.
Minnesota Delegation Members to Host Monday Evening Coronavirus Briefing Calls
Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) and Congressman Dean Phillips (D-MN-03) will host an open-to-the-public briefing call on COVID-19 at 6:00 PM CST on Monday, March 16. Details on the call, including the dial-in number and a link to submit questions, can be found here. In addition to Senator Smith and Congressman Phillips, the call will feature Rob Thomas, Medical Director for the Emergency Physicians Professional Association; Penny Wheeler, CEO of the Allina Health System; and Kelly Searle, an Epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota.
Additionally, Congresswoman Angie Craig (D-MN-02) will be hosting an education-focused briefing call tonight at 7:00 PM CST. Congresswoman Craig will be joined by local education and public health officials. Call-in information and a link for question submissions can be found here.