Senate may act this week
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. House of Representatives has acted swiftly again to help America deal with the impact of the coronavirus, passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act by a vote of 363-40 last March 14. The bill aids individuals and families, experiencing immediate financial hardship as a result of the coronavirus. It also clears the way for free testing, so the spread of the disease can be better tracked. Just last week, the House passed legislation with $8.3 billion to respond to the health crisis and will likely act again in the weeks ahead with more funding to contain the coronavirus and reduce the economic harm to people, businesses, and state and territorial governments.
“We were able to get more Medicaid money for the Marianas and a reduced local match included in the Families First Act,” said Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP). There is $5.425 million for Marianas Medicaid, adding to $120 million Sablan already secured for the program in December.
“This will help us pay for treatment, if we have coronavirus patients in the Marianas,” Sablan said. “The Act also further cuts the Marianas local match from 17% to 10.8%, which is especially good given the shortfall in Commonwealth government revenues from the loss of tourism.”
To make sure cost does not stop people from getting tested for the coronavirus, the House-passed bill provides $1 billion for the National Disaster Medical System for free tests for those who do not have health insurance. And the Act allows anyone covered by Medicare Advantage or Original Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, VA, FEHBP, and TRICARE insurance also to get tested at no cost.
“Availability of testing remains a problem nationwide,” Sablan said. “Even if tests are free, if people cannot get a test nearby or tests take a long time to process, then we will not have the information we need to keep the virus from spreading.
“Right now, Marianas tests have to go to Hawaii. The congressional office is pressing this issue with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
“I am encouraged the Commonwealth [Health] Center has ordered lab equipment that allows for the necessary DNA analysis. And [the Commonwealth Health Care Corp.] has already been allocated $370,000 from last week’s Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act to reimburse that and other costs of making tests available here in the Marianas.”
The bill the House passed Saturday also aims to make sure families and school children have enough to eat, if the coronavirus cuts household incomes. There is a special set-aside of $100 million for the Marianas, American Samoa, and Puerto Rico to supplement the local nutrition assistance programs.
The Marianas will benefit from emergency funding for WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children. WIC will provide food for low-income pregnant women or mothers with young children who are out of work due to the coronavirus emergency. And there is $400 million to assist food banks nationwide, including in the Marianas, meet increased demand.
Another $250 million is for the Senior Nutrition Program to provide home-delivered meals. A local match is waived. “With seniors particularly at risk from the coronavirus,” said Sablan, “I hope the Marianas will use this new money to encourage our man’amko to stay at home and limit their contacts with other people for the time being.” Death rates from the virus increase with age.
Children, who depend on school lunch and other feeding programs, will be protected. In the event schools are closed for five consecutive days, extra food assistance will be provided to students’ families.
Paid leave, unemployment compensation
Other provisions of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act address the situation of workers who stay home to avoid spreading the virus or because they or family members become ill. The Act establishes an Emergency Paid Leave Program that would replace a significant share of those workers’ lost wages.
“The original House bill had the Social Security administrator send a check directly to the eligible workers,” Sablan said. “But the Trump administration held up the bill by insisting on making businesses pay the cost and then apply for a tax credit. That will be hard for businesses in the Marianas and nationwide.
“Fortunately, [U.S. House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi did include a cover over of the cost of the tax credit for the government of the Marianas and other insular areas,” Sablan added.
The Act also provides $1 billion for emergency grants to states that experience increases in claims for unemployment insurance compensation. The Marianas does not have an unemployment insurance system to protect laid-off workers.
“I have in the past recommended to governors and the Legislature that they consider enacting unemployment insurance for Marianas workers, because federal financial aid, like today’s legislation, is often based on state and territorial systems,” Sablan said.
“With hotels, restaurants, and other businesses in the Marianas already suffering because of the coronavirus, people will be laid off from their jobs and could use unemployment insurance.
“I will certainly be working in the days ahead to make sure other federal aid gets to those who lose their jobs. The Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, for instance, that provided benefits to individuals out of work after typhoons Soudelor and Yutu, should become available now that the President has declared a nationwide public health emergency.”
President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday and encouraged governors to consider requesting federal assistance. The President’s action makes available the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund, worth $47.917 billion as the agency reported to Congress last month. The Fund can be used as a source for the Community Disaster Loan program to help local governments make up for revenue shortfalls following a disaster. Both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands used this program to make up for revenue losses following hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
House leaders negotiated intensely with the Trump administration over the week before bringing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to the floor for a vote at 12:53am Saturday morning. And the President declared by tweet he was ready to sign “ASAP.” But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sent the Senate home over the weekend without taking action.
The Senate is expected to consider the bill next week. (PR)