Congress Reflects Divided Re-opening Strategies

The Senate returned to Washington on Monday; the House did not.

Half of Congress came to order this week, and it serves almost as a reflection of what is going on across the country, in terms of state approaches to reopening America.

The Republican-led Senate, headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, returned to Washington Monday, albeit with social distancing guidelines in place and no place to buy coffee on the Hill.

The Democrat-led House, headed by Rep. Nancy Pelosi, is taking a more cautious approach, and after consulting with Congress’s attending physician, it was decided that the House will not be meeting this week. Pelosi has said that there is no reason to risk member exposure by coming to D.C. until Congress has more agreement on what should be in the next stimulus package.

The Senate’s agenda for the week breaks down into two issues: first, McConnell wants to confirm a number of Trump-nominated federal judges. Second, with the Senate physically present, McConnell wants his chamber to take a more active role in creating that next legislative package to address COVID-19. Congress’s last funding package, if you remember, was really led by the House working with the Trump Administration, and the Senate was more or less on the sidelines.

The context here is that the city of Washington, D.C., has not yet hit its peak, in terms of COVID-19 cases – as of Saturday, May 2, in fact, the infection rate was up from last week – and the city’s mayor said it could be another two or three months before the city itself reopens. 

A side note here: exactly a third of the House of Representatives and nearly half of senators are over the age of 65.

To be clear, the decision to return to D.C. this week is not only political; it’s also practical. The Senate has only 100 members, which is easier to manage in terms of social distancing, compared to the House, which has over 400 members. The House plans to come back starting Monday of next week, but that’s not set in stone yet.

And there is some bipartisan agreement shining through. The Trump Administration offered Congress COVID-19 test kits last week to test its members before they reconvened. Pelosi and McConnell responded in a shared statement with a “no thank you,” and told the White House to direct the tests to the front lines, where they can do the most good.

Talks about the next stimulus package are underway. McConnell would like to see protections against employee lawsuits as companies start to open up, while Pelosi and the Democrats have a list of ideas they would like to see included, starting with $1 trillion in funding for state and local governments. A draft of the next stimulus package put forward by the House is expected to be circulated this week.

Speaking of changes in D.C., for the first time ever, Americans will be able to hear the Supreme Court in action. Starting Monday, C-span will be live-streaming arguments before the court.

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) gave an update on the Provider Relief Fund set up by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act: up until now, the money has been distributed to facilities and physicians based on their net patient revenue, as reported to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). CMS announced that it will now start distributing money to rural facilities and facilities, and physicians that have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

These hot spots include New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois, although if you include the rural funding, Texas will get the most money at over $600 million spread across 400 facilities.

And don’t forget that the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) is now taking registrations for its program to reimburse providers for uninsured COVID-19 patients. Payments for the uninsured are expected to start between May 15 and May 18.

Programming Note: Matthew Albright is a permanent panelist on Monitor Mondays, 10-10:30 a.m. EST.

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Matthew Albright

Matthew Albright is the chief legislative affairs officer at Zelis Healthcare. Previously, Albright was senior manager at CAQH CORE, and earlier, he was the acting deputy director of the Office of E-Health and Services for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

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