HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: Schumer Floats $750 Billion in Virus Funds

Senate Democrats yesterday unveiled a $750 billion proposal aimed at buying a “surge” of equipment that’s needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic and bolster the social safety net.

Included in the legislation introduced by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is $400 billion of emergency appropriations to boost the number of hospitals beds in the U.S., expand the availability of medical supplies, and to “ensure affordable care” for people with Covid-19.

There are over 924,000 staffed beds across all U.S. hospitals, but public health officials are warning some areas may see all their beds filled due to outbreaks of the new coronavirus. The American Hospital Association has recommended lawmakers fund “surge capacity” using temporary structures such as provisional hospitals. They’re also asking for money for housing for people who are ill and need to be isolated but don’t require hospitalization.

Democrats are also discussing again increasing the federal share of Medicaid spending, a move economists say is helpful in recessions as people lose their jobs. “One other thing we need: as more testing becomes available, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases will inevitably increase, and the strain on our existing public health system will become even greater,” Schumer said on the Senate floor yesterday.

“We are going to need massive investments to ensure we have the capacity and necessary infrastructure to treat all Americans that need it,” he said.

Senate Republicans, however, have not reported much interest in putting funds directly towards medical equipment or hospitals. They’re debating a $1 trillion proposal laid out by White House officials that focuses largely on stimulating the economy and keeping afloat some industries hit hard by the virus.

McConnell said yesterday that Republicans in the Senate would create their own bill then negotiate later with Democrats, Alex Ruoff reports.

Other Congressional Virus Efforts

Senate to Vote on House Bill: The Senate will move forward with a vote on the coronavirus-relief bill (H.R. 6201) passed by the House rather than seeking to add major fiscal stimulus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters yesterday. McConnell also said the Senate wouldn’t leave town until they had completed the third bill now under discussion to address the emergency. Read more from Laurie Asseo.

Legislation of a much larger scale is needed, McConnell said after meeting with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and GOP senators. He said Congress needs to put money directly into hands of Americans quickly and must help small businesses.

  • The House late on Monday passed a “corrected” version of the coronavirus emergency aid bill, significantly limiting employees’ eligibility for expanded family and medical leave by restricting it to child care purposes. Its previous version would have required employers to provide staffers with 12 weeks of partially paid Family and Medical Leave Act leave for quarantine, to care for a family member or to care for a child. The new version would limit a “qualifying need” for FMLA leave to instances where an employee can’t work or telecommute because their child’s school, day care, or child care is unavailable. Genevieve Douglas and Chris Opfer have more on the changes.
  • BGOV Bill Summary: H.R. 6201, Coronavirus Relief Deal With Revisions

Long-Term Sick Leave Eyed: A third House coronavirus response package that is being developed will include making sure sick workers can access longer term leave, increasing the scope of allowable uses of family and medical leave, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement yesterday. The bill will also work to expand refundable tax credits for self-employed workers, make sure actions taken by the Trump administration balance workforce needs, and ensure paid leave for first responders and health workers, Pelosi said in the statement, Elizabeth Elkin reports.

  • The Trump administration is discussing a plan that could amount to as much as $1.2 trillion, including direct payments of $1,000 or more to Americans within two weeks, to blunt some of the economic effects of the widening pandemic. Mnuchin pitched $250 billion in checks to be sent by the end of this month, with a second set of checks totaling $500 billion four weeks later if there’s still a national emergency, a person familiar with the matter said, Josh Wingrove, Laura Davison and Saleha Mohsin report.

Insurance Coverage: A bipartisan group of senators—Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), and Steve Daines (R-Mont.)—introduced legislation to “require private health insurance plans to cover treatments or vaccines” for the coronavirus with “no cost sharing,” according to a statement. The bill would “allow Americans to rapidly access vaccines for this novel coronavirus as soon as they are available,” according to the statement.

Testing & Treatment

Legal Precedent for ‘Disaster’ Label: Trump has suggested he could designate the coronavirus pandemic a “major disaster,” a move that would open up many more avenues of federal assistance, including funding for health infrastructure. But it’d come with a catch: Never before has a virus been declared a “natural disaster.” Trump on March 13 declared the pandemic a “national emergency,” a designation that offers significant funds for states but includes more restrictions than what is allowed for recovery efforts when a natural disaster strikes.

A federal declaration of a “major disaster” would allow state and local officials to tap into a wider range of federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure, including funds for both emergency and permanent work. Trump appears to be looking in that direction, even if there is no precedent. Read more from Cheryl Bolen and Shira Stein.

Stockpile of Medical Supplies: The states hit hardest by outbreaks of the new coronavirus are asking the federal government to tap into the country’s reserve of medical supplies as demand for essentials, like masks and ventilators, are far greater than the public’s supply. California, Washington, New York, New Jersey, and Ohio have all in recent days asked the Trump administration to tap into the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile for respirators, masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment that are in short supply as doctors race to contain the virus’s spread.

Some states like Washington have gotten some but not all the supplies they say are needed to contain the virus. Others, such as Ohio, have been waiting weeks for a response. Emergency medicine doctors say the federal stockpile, overseen by the Health and Human Services Department, should be emptied now to help hospital and health-care providers at risk of getting sick themselves if they don’t have enough protection, including respirator masks. Alex Ruoff has more.

Related:

Virtual Doctor Visits: Hospitals using telehealth to combat the coronavirus still have legal pitfalls to avoid, even under relaxed guidelines released by the Trump administration. HHS’s Office for Civil Rights said yesterday that it won’t enforce penalties under federal health privacy policies if covered entities use video chat apps, including Apple’s FaceTime, Facebook Messenger’s video chat, Skype, and Google Hangouts, to offer telehealth services. But Facebook Live, Twitch, TikTok, and other similar video communication apps shouldn’t be used for telehealth by covered health care providers, OCR added.

Those systems could catch the eyes of hackers if the connections aren’t secure under health security laws still in place. Doctors also have to ensure they have the correct credentials to provide health services virtually, including diagnoses, treatments, and filling prescriptions, health IT professionals say. Read more from Ayanna Alexander.

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Research & Prevention

Waiving Research Liability: Medical companies have the green light to develop coronavirus tests and vaccines without having to worry about lawsuits—building on lessons learned from abandoned HIV research during the 1990s. The federal extension of liability protections for medicine and device makers who are willing to invest research into new vaccines, testing, and equipment to address the new coronavirus pandemic is a critical step that will encourage U.S. companies to act faster, according to lawyers watching the issue. Valerie Bauman has more.

Latest Fatality Estimate Is 0.7%: The latest data on the fatality rate for people with Covid-19 is about 0.7%, with most under 30 at a very low risk, according to Deborah Birx, a member of the White House’s task force responding to the coronavirus. There are exceptions, especially for those with underlying illnesses, Birx said. “It’s much higher, in people with pre-existing medical conditions, even if young, and people that are older, with pre-existing medical conditions.” Read more updates from Bloomberg News here.

Doctors Groups Seek Loss Protections: The groups of doctors, hospitals, and other clinicians that provide coordinated care for beneficiaries of Medicare are urging program administrators to ensure they aren’t held responsible for rising costs related to the outbreak. The country’s 517 provider groups—accountable care organizations (ACOs)—are a primary component of traditional Medicare’s transition from a fee-for-service model to value-based care, Tony Pugh reports.

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What Else to Know

New Warnings for Cigarettes: The Food and Drug Administration has finalized a rule to mandate new health warnings on cigarette packages and cigarette ads. The warnings feature text statements with photorealistic color images depicting some of the lesser-known but serious health risks of smoking, including impacts to fetal growth, cardiac disease, and diabetes. The FDA said starting in June 2021 the new warnings will be required to appear prominently on cigarette packages and in ads, occupying the top 50% of the area of the front and rear panels of all packages and at least 20% of the top of ads, Robert Lavelle reports.

Healthcare Litigation Group Jumps From Kirkland to McDermott: McDermott Will & Emery has hired a three-partner healthcare litigation group from Kirkland & Ellis in New York, bolstering the firm’s growing litigation practice in the city. The group is made up of Josh Simon, Warren Haskel, and Dmitriy Tishyevich, who specialize in complex litigation, arbitration, and regulatory matters in the healthcare industry. They are the latest addition to McDermott’s New York practice, which now includes more than 40 commercial litigators. Many of the firm’s recent partner hires focus on healthcare, securities, and financial services litigation. Read more from Stephanie Russell-Kraft.

Lipinski Ousted in Ill. House Primrary: Eight-term Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski lost the primary for his House seat to Marie Newman, a progressive who was backed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and EMILY’s List. The race was a re-match of the 2018 primary when Lipinski, an anti-abortion centrist Democrat, defeated Newman 51% to 49%. Read more from Megan Howard.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at aruoff@bgov.com; Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giuseppe Macri at gmacri@bgov.com; Zachary Sherwood at zsherwood@bgov.com

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