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Coronavirus March 20 Update: Republican Stimulus Unveiled, Stimulus for Health Care Industry, Health Data Protection

Coronavirus March 20 Update: Republican Stimulus Unveiled, Stimulus for Health Care Industry, Health Data Protection

Friday, March 20, 2020

Republican stimulus unveiled 

Senate Republicans released a massive stimulus plan Thursday to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with financial relief for U.S. households and businesses having trouble staying afloat.

The package would deliver direct cash payments of up to $3,400 for married couples who earn up to $150,000 and have two children; defer payroll taxes paid by employers; provide loans secured by company assets for airlines and other hard-hit industries; boost payments to hospitals and more.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged to work across the aisle on the evolving package (S 3548), making committee chairmen as well as top Trump administration officials available for briefings. McConnell acknowledged the legislation was likely to change over the course of discussions with the White House, Senate Democrats and House leaders.

"We know this legislation will not be the last word," he said. "But we need to take bold action as soon as possible."

Democratic leaders issued a joint statement that didn't object outright to the Senate GOP proposal, though Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York made clear they considered the draft bill inadequate.

To win support from Democrats, they said, the measure needed to include expanded unemployment insurance and Medicaid funding; expanded paid leave; targeted cash payments to "those who need it most"; and a ban on stock buybacks and layoffs while limiting executive compensation for firms receiving help.

"We look forward to working in a bipartisan way to deliver for the American people as soon as humanly possible," Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement. Paul M. Krawzak has the full story here.

The bottom line: A speedy Senate vote won't come until a bipartisan stimulus deal is reached. 

Cash payments under scrutiny 

The centerpiece of the Senate GOP bill (S 3548) would provide direct payments to individuals of about $1,200 per person or $2,400 for married couples filing jointly, with $500 extra per child, at a cost of $273 billion, according to a source familiar with the package.

The benefit would begin to phase down above $75,000 in adjusted gross income -- or income before standard or itemized deductions and tax credits -- for individuals and $150,000 for couples. The income thresholds are based on 2018 tax returns and would phase out at a rate of $5 for each $100 above the line.

That means a single filer with AGI above $99,000 wouldn't get a check, while that cutoff is $198,000 for married couples, according to a Senate Finance summary. Lower-income households with little or no tax liability would get $600 to $1,200 if they have at least $2,500 in AGI.

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said that configuration may not fly with House Democrats. "Any legislation that gives the least to those who need it the most is deeply flawed," Neal said in a statement.

The White House plan envisioned two rounds of checks of equal size, distributed about six weeks apart. But it appears Senate Republicans are holding the second check in abeyance for the time being. "There's some discussion about, let's do the first tranche and make sure we get that right, and then we'll see in six weeks if there's another need," said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.

And some Republicans said they'd prefer boosting unemployment insurance benefits instead of doling out checks to those who haven't lost a job.

"I personally think that if we're going to help people, we ought to direct the cash payments maybe as a supplement to unemployment [benefits], not to the people that are still working every day," Shelby said. "Just a blanket cash check to everybody in America making up to $75,000, I don't know the logic of that." 

Stimulus for health care industry 

The rapidly-assembled Senate stimulus package would include aid hospitals have been begging Congress for and could help the health care industry financially as they face unprecedented staffing and supply needs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Senate bill would provide an enhanced 15 percent Medicare payment to hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients and lift the 2 percent Medicare cuts that have been in place since the 2013 sequester, CQ Roll Call's Paul M. Krawzak reports. Community health centers would be given $1.32 billion for their coronavirus response.

The bill would also expand telehealth coverage for Medicare and people with high-deductible health plans and have Medicaid pay for training programs for caregivers in rural areas.

The bill released Thursday afternoon also includes provisions that have been long-time priorities for some lawmakers even before the coronavirus outbreak. It would give the FDA more power to require information from manufacturers to mitigate drug shortages, allow health savings accounts to pay for over-the-counter medications without a prescription and increase the Medicare reimbursement for new antibiotics that should be used sparingly. The bill also includes controversial language that would alter the patient consent requirements for substance use treatment records to be shared with other health care providers, a policy change that Congress has been divided over in recent years.

But Democrats signaled they would seek more to bolster health care infrastructure, and more protections for workers who have been affected by the health crisis. The American Medical Association asked for more funding to support the health workforce.

Some of the bill's provisions could help as states and medical groups are taking steps to prevent healthcare workforce shortages, with those on the frontlines are among those most at risk for contracting COVID-19. But a variety of roadblocks make it difficult to quickly expand the workforce, even in an emergency, Sandhya Raman reports. 

Senators press for health data protection 

Senate Democrats say they're concerned the administration is not properly protecting Americans' health data by partnering with an Alphabet subsidiary on a COVID-19 testing website the company is developing, Dean DeChiaro reports.

In a letter on Thursday to Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the White House's coronavirus task force, the senators asked about the administration's plans ensure that Verily, a health and science research organization owned by Google's parent company, to protect user data from cyberattacks and prevent from misusing any data gathered by the website.

"If the Administration and the private company responsible for launching and maintaining the website does not establish sufficient privacy safeguards, Americans who use the site will be more susceptible to identity theft, negative credit decisions, and employment discrimination," the senators, led by Bob Menendez, wrote.

The website unveiled by Verily earlier this week is currently only available to residents in two Bay Area counties, but does require authorization to collect, use and share information gathered during the user's online health screening with testing companies and laboratories.

In a blog post on its website Wednesday, the company said use of the website requires users to have a Google account but that it would not share its user data with Google without "explicit permission."

"We are committed to maintaining high privacy standards and keeping your data safe," said Verily. "The information provided will be stored in a secure, encrypted database."