U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo, made a stop Sunday in Joplin to outline top priorities in the pending $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that includes additional funding for COVID-19 testing and vaccines, hospitals, schools, child care operations and businesses.
Senate Republicans introduced the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools Act in late July to supplement the previous coronavirus relief package. The proposal aims to address concerns and needs that weren’t reached in the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed by President Donald Trump in March.
Blunt said at a news conference at Freeman Hospital West that the biggest difference between the CARES Act and the HEALS Act is that the CARES Act was more of a rescue mission while the HEALS Act is a recovery effort.
“For instance, loans available to businesses in something like the Paycheck Protection Program probably should be available to only businesses that lost a lot of money, and maybe that’s a comparison of revenue versus revenue a year ago,” he said. “Maybe people who lost 50% of their revenues should be treated differently than someone who lost 10% of their revenues.”
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services, Blunt has helped lead the congressional coronavirus response efforts.
A portion of the bill, he said, will focus on how to reopen schools safely, including $70 billion for elementary and secondary schools; with more funding going to schools that physically reopen so they can do so safely; $29 billion for institutions of higher education; and $5 billion in flexible funding for governors to use for early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, or higher education, based on state needs.
The money is "to help schools get back into school – particularly if they get back in person – the additional in-person expenses of distancing and various shields, places where you wouldn’t have them otherwise; maybe spreading out your campus and your school in some way that you haven’t anticipated,” Blunt said.
The HEALS Act also includes more than $15 billion to help child care providers safely remain open or reopen and support family services, including $5 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant; $10 billion for Back to Work Child Care Grants; and $190 million for family violence prevention and child welfare programs.
Another element of the bill is the expansion of COVID-19 testing, including $16 billion for testing, contact tracing and surveillance in states. The new funding, when combined with approximately $9 billion that remains unallocated from the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, would make $25 billion available for those purposes.
“Priority for tests that the federal government would establish in the bill that we wrote would be nursing homes, child care facilities, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities,” Blunt said. “And of course, facilities like this one, hospital facilities need whatever assistance they need to be able to largely do their own front-line work and testing.”
An additional $26 billion will be marked for COVID-19 vaccine, therapeutic and diagnostic development, manufacturing and distribution. The bill includes additional resources to ensure access to care, including $25 billion for hospitals and health care providers, bringing the total to $200 billion when combined with the previous COVID-19 bills; $7.6 billion for Community Health Centers; and $225 million for rural health clinics.
It also proposes $15.5 billion for the National Institutes of Health to reopen laboratories and conduct COVID-19 research, including how the disease affects minorities, pregnant women, children and those with underlying conditions.
Democrats and Republicans only have a few more days to agree on a new coronavirus relief package. Blunt said the biggest differences between the Republican-backed bill and the Democrat-backed bill is that the House bill has about a trillion dollars to replace revenue for local governments.
“I’m not sure how exactly that will work out, but you can certainly argue that the federal government taking money that they don’t have to replace money the state doesn’t have, there has to be a flaw in that somewhere,” he said. “Another big difference is whether we continue the full additional $600 beyond what the state unemployment would’ve paid and how long we would continue that. … But after that, there’s a pretty close comparison.”
U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement in which he expressed disappointment at the HEALS Act and called on Senate Republicans to begin negotiations with Senate Democrats. Schumer said the HEALS Act does little to provide aid for the most severely affected communities and individuals and contains nothing for national priorities such as state and local aid, hazard pay, child nutrition, and the U.S. Postal Service.
Blunt said during the news conference that he hopes the two parties can reach an agreement by the end of next week.
“Hopefully, we can work this out by the end of next week," he said. "That’s sort of the deadline. The reason it’s the deadline is because both parties have their party conventions in a couple weeks after that.”