coronavirus

House Dems’ Aid Package Offers Free Virus Testing, Paid Sick Leave

The multibillion-dollar aid package titled Families First was being halted by Republicans before a hoped-for vote Thursday in the Democratic-controlled House.

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House Democrats have unveiled an ambitious measure to provide free testing for the coronavirus, paid sick leave and strengthened unemployment insurance as a response to the worsening outbreak's economic impact on people across the United States.

The multibillion-dollar aid package titled Families First was being halted by Republicans before a hoped-for vote Thursday in the Democratic-controlled House.

Facing a likely surge in unemployment claims, the package would give states money for the newly jobless. It would provide additional funding for food and nutrition benefits for pregnant women, mothers and young children.

It also would increase money for “meals on wheels” and food for low-income elderly people, as well as additional Medicaid funding for states facing a fiscal crunch.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called it an "ideological wish list" the Republicans would oppose. The bill omits a measure President Donald Trump has repeatedly called on Congress to pass, a cut to the federal payroll tax in order to stimulate the economy.

McConnell said later Thursday that the Senate would cancel recess set for next week and stay in session.

Meanwhile, Congress is shutting the Capitol to the public until April in reaction to the spread of the coronavirus, a rare step that underscores the growing gravity with which the government is reacting to the viral outbreak.

Here's what's included in the House Democrats' legislation:

FREE CORONAVIRUS TESTING

It requires private health insurance plans to provide free coronavirus testing and waives cost-sharing rules for testing provided to people covered by Medicare, Medicaid and federal retirement programs. It boosts federal matching funds to state Medicaid programs by 8%.

Pelosi stressed Thursday at a weekly briefing the importance of testing in order to assess the "size of the challenge" and to be able to meet the needs of those who test positive.

Vice President Mike Pence said major health insurance companies have joined Medicaid and Medicare in agreeing to waive co-pays and cover the cost of treatment related to COVID-19.

PAID SICK LEAVE

It establishes an unprecedented — but temporary — federal sick leave benefit paid through the Social Security program. Workers with the coronavirus or caring for family members with it would receive two-thirds of their wages for up to three months. The benefit would expire in January 2021.

It also creates a federally mandated sick leave benefit for private businesses that would require all employers to allow their workers to accrue seven days of paid sick leave, with an additional 14 days available immediately in the event of public health emergencies such as the current coronavirus crisis.

FOOD AID

It provides $1.3 billion in emergency food aid for low-income pregnant women and their young children, senior citizens and food banks. It allows states to provide food stamps to make up for lost school lunch benefits if their children are kept home from school and directs $100 million of the funds to U.S. territories.

UNEMPLOYMENT BENEFITS

Workers laid off because of the coronavirus outbreak are already eligible for unemployment benefits, but the legislation provides $1 billion for additional caseloads and administrative costs to encourage temporarily furloughed workers to obtain unemployment benefits.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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