Senate GOP narrows COVID-19 relief asks, removes provider funding

Senate Republicans are considering a new, slimmer COVID-19 relief bill that includes no additional funds for healthcare provider grants.

The proposal comes as negotiations between congressional Democrats and the White House collapsed in recent weeks. The new bill includes liability protections that healthcare providers wanted, but doesn’t set aside the additional $100 billion in grants providers had asked for or relax Medicare loan terms, according to draft text of the proposal.

Funding for the federal government expires at the end of September, so there could be a must-pass vehicle for further legislation at that time.

The more modest legislation is scaled back from the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection and Schools (HEALS) Act that Senate Republicans proposed last month. The new bill includes funds for COVID-19 testing, an extension of more modest federal unemployment benefits, a second round of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans for hard-hit small businesses, and money for vaccine production and distribution.

Senate Republicans’ initial offering would have added $25 billion to the $175 billion Provider Relief Fund that lawmakers created to help healthcare providers offset lost revenue and coronavirus-related expenses. That funding is excluded from the narrower bill.

Hospitals have also been asking Congress to relax the repayment terms and interest rates on Medicare loans many providers took out at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, but the scaled-back Senate GOP proposal doesn’t include that policy either.

An extension of telehealth flexibilities through at least 2021 was also left out of the smaller bill.

McConnell’s liability legislation has drawn criticism from Democrats, who are instead pushing to force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue emergency standards to protect workers.

The House is scheduled to return to the Capitol to take votes on legislation regarding the U.S. Postal Service this weekend, but the Senate is out of session.

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