This July, both chambers of Congress have ramped up negotiations for the next legislative package to address the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout. Since the virus first arrived in the United States, Congress has passed five bills encompassing nearly $3 trillion in spending, including the CARES Act in March, which created the Provider Relief Fund, the Paycheck Protection Program, and waived the three-hour rule for IRF admissions, among other provisions. However, bipartisan negotiations on the next major package have been stalled since April, due to disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on the price tag and scope of further congressional action.
In May, the House passed the HEROES Act, a massive spending package to address the pandemic through state and local funding for testing and contact tracing, additional direct payments to individuals, hazard pay for frontline and essential workers, and a range of other Democratic priorities. The Congressional Budget Office concluded that the HEROES Act would cost almost $3.5 trillion. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, has stated that the Senate will not consider the HEROES Act in any form due to the partisan nature of its provisions.
In recent weeks, leaders of both parties and representatives of the Trump Administration have acknowledged the need for at least one additional major COVID-related bill and have indicated that they hope to debut a proposal for consideration and passage by the beginning of the August Congressional recess, which is scheduled to begin August 7. As both parties look toward their political conventions and their focus pivots to the November elections, it seems likely that Congress will act in some fashion, but it remains to be seen what agreement Democratic and Republican leaders will be able to reach with the President.
While details on the package are scarce and no legislative text has yet to be released, there are a few key proposals expected to feature prominently in the next COVID-19 bill. The top priority for Congressional Republicans is enacting liability shields for businesses (including healthcare facilities and schools) that re-open in order to protect them from lawsuits by customers or employees who may become infected with the virus. Democrats have focused on significant additional resources for state and local governments to fund testing and tracing and to address budget shortfalls, reforms to the loan process under the Paycheck Protection Program, and expansion of the federal boost to unemployment benefits (which are scheduled to lapse July 31).
The Trump administration has signaled that it would also like to see provisions addressing surprise medical billing (a major topic of discussion before the pandemic, though little progress has been made to solve the question of whether insurers or providers and patients should bear the costs of out-of-network care), price transparency for pharmaceuticals, and permanently enhancing the reimbursement rate for telemedicine. Additionally, many lower-income Americans may see another round of direct payments, though these may turn out to be less than the $1,200 authorized by the CARES Act.
While the provisions above reflect the current priorities for Congress, negotiations are likely to touch on a vast array of policies over the next few weeks, and the result may look quite different from what is currently envisioned by congressional leaders. However, as the virus continues to surge in many states across the country, it is becoming clear that Congress will need to put forth an additional legislative package to guide the federal response to the ongoing crisis.