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Coronavirus March 18 Update: A $1 Trillion Stimulus, Fighting Misinformation, and Lifted Telehealth Restrictions

Coronavirus March 18 Update: A $1 Trillion Stimulus, Fighting Misinformation, and Lifted Telehealth Restrictions

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A $1 trillion stimulus?

The White House and Congress began discussing a coronavirus stimulus bill that could reach nearly $1 trillion, even before the Senate had finished work on a smaller aid measure (HR 6201) that would provide paid sick leave for affected workers and enhance food security for children now at home from school closed all around the country, among other provisions.

Republicans and the Trump administration are pushing for the big package to include $1,000 stimulus checks and billions in aid to affected industries, such as airlines, CQ Roll Call's Jennifer Shutt and Paul Krawzak report. But Democrats are likely to resist industry "bailouts" and will push instead for more money to address the health crisis being caused by COVID-19.

The Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday evening sent Congress another emergency supplemental request. It includes $16.6 billion for the Veterans Affairs Department, as well as billions more for Health and Human Services and other agencies, Lauren Clason reports. 

Fighting misinformation

Public health experts worry that the spread of COVID-19 could be exacerbated by the spreading of false information and want federal agencies to do more to protect individuals.

These rumors and sometimes dangerous products or practices are being disseminated at an alarming rate, they say. Numerous reports have warned against using vodka to make hand sanitizer, and some experts have had to warn individuals not to use bleach for gargling or hand washing, Sandhya Raman reports.
FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn was asked about the efficacy of homemade hand sanitizer during a recent House appropriations subcommittee hearing, and published a USA Today op-ed Tuesday urging people to talk to their doctor before buying sketchy items online.

"People are asking what they can do and are not getting much advice from the government," said Durland Fish, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health. 

Telehealth restrictions lifted

The Trump administration Tuesday temporarily loosened regulations on telehealth services as the United States enters a period of prolonged social distancing, in order to limit the spread of coronavirus infections but continue serving routine health care needs.

Medicare would previously pay for telehealth for rural patients far from medical facilities but it will now be available to patients much more broadly for office, hospital and other visits, even when the provider is nearby. The services would include evaluation and management, mental health counseling and preventive health screenings.

The Health and Human Services Department's inspector general office, which enforces laws preventing self-referrals and kickbacks, is loosening requirements in federal health programs so that providers can reduce patients' cost-sharing obligations.

The administration is also relaxing HIPAA privacy requirements more broadly to let doctors use personal phones for telehealth purposes, meaning providers would be able to use software like FaceTime or Skype to speak with patients. The moves came amid a flurry of regulatory rollbacks meant to give the private sector and states more power to respond to COVID-19.

The administration on Tuesday also approved a Medicaid waiver for Florida to provide care in alternate settings, remove some prior-authorization requirements before people can get care, extend certain deadlines and streamline enrollment processes for medical providers to participate. On Monday, the FDA loosened its oversight of diagnostic test developers. 

This is war

Lawmakers and doctors are urging the administration to take a wartime footing when it comes to the COVID-19 response and providing health care providers with urgently-needed supplies.

The American Medical Association said that a "Manhattan Style" project is needed "to expand manufacturing capacity and produce the supplies needed to ensure the health security of our country."

The group's letter to Vice President Mike Pence echoed the rhetoric of many Democratic lawmakers in recent days. More than half of all Senate Democrats on Tuesday sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to invoke aspects of the Defense Production Act of 1950.

The letter from Sen. Sherrod Brown and 27 others said the Defense Department should work with states to assess the supply of personal protective equipment, ventilators, test kits and other supplies needed in the response. Then the Defense Logistics Agency should work on deploying needed equipment, they wrote. 

That followed a resolution introduced Monday by Sen. Edward J. Markey urging Trump to direct suppliers to prioritize government contracts to restock the national stockpile, provide loans to manufacturers to help production and allow private-sector business to coordinate their production of necessary medical supplies.