A narrow COVID-19 relief package crafted by Senate Republicans failed to advance on Thursday, and prospects for provider funding and other healthcare industry priorities are fading.
Senate Democrats united to to block the GOP's slimmed-down COVID-19 relief package with a 52-47 vote. The narrower bill was more palatable to some Republicans worried about the cost of prior relief packages, but Democrats opposed liability protections for businesses including healthcare providers and saw the package as too modest.
Bipartisan negotiations over a broader COVID-19 relief package have stalled, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Thursday said that negotiations on COVID-19 relief are separate from government funding talks ahead of a Sept. 30 shutdown deadline. Some observers had viewed government funding legislation as a potential vehicle for a relief bill.
Senate Republicans' narrow bill would have protected businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19, given states the option to extend reduced additional federal unemployment benefits, opened a second round of small-business loans, provided $16 billion for state COVID-19 testing, and set aside $31 billion for vaccine, therapeutic and diagnostic development and stockpiling. The bill would also have rescinded roughly $200 billion of unspent funds that were allocated to the Federal Reserve in prior relief legislation.
Healthcare providers had asked lawmakers to at least relax Medicare loan repayment terms and for $100 billion more to help healthcare providers offset coronavirus-related expenses and lost revenue. CMS has not yet started recouping the Medicare accelerated and advance payments as outlined in statute. A prior GOP relief package would have ensured telehealth flexibilities through at least the end of 2021, but the narrower bill does not. Insurers and clinical labs had asked to establish a national fund for testing reimbursement, which was also left out of the narrower proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday attacked Democrats' decision to obstruct the partisan legislation from moving forward.
"Their goal is clear: No help for American families before the election," McConnell tweeted.
House Democrats passed an opening bid for another comprehensive relief package on May 15. The two biggest sticking points in negotiations are additional federal unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments.
Partisanship will only heighten as the November election draws nearer, which will make dealmaking on a major relief package more difficult.