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While lawmakers came together to quickly pass emergency funding to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, a larger package to address economic fallout from the outbreak is shaping up to be a partisan fight with little focus on healthcare.
President Donald Trump on Monday said he plans to call for Congress to pass a payroll tax cut and relief for hourly wage earners, small businesses and the airline and cruise industries. But Democrats prefer an approach that would expand paid sick and family leave and unemployment insurance for those impacted by COVID-19, ensure free testing for the coronavirus and address food insecurity in case of school closures.
Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow met with Republican senators Tuesday afternoon to float policy mechanisms and gather ideas. Kudlow said Tuesday evening that the administration could leverage executive authority to address unpaid sick leave and some tax deferrals. Kudlow also said the president wants the payroll tax holiday to last through the end of December, which is after the November election.
"We are working out details right now and checking with leaders in both parties in both houses to see what is doable and where the tough nuts are going to be," Kudlow said. "The payroll tax holiday is probably the most important and powerful piece of this."
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate committee responsible for tax policy, said he is generally considering tax relief measures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, but said discussions are still in early stages.
"Everybody's thinking we've sat down, but we're just starting to look at the risk. Everything's on the table. And where there's risk about the virus health-wise, there might be a risk to the economy, and we just got to be ahead of it," Grassley said Monday.
Democrats do not seem keen on cutting payroll taxes to stimulate the economy. House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) did not directly respond to reporters' questions about Trump's payroll tax cut idea.
"It's got to be a two-way street in terms of the conversations. We've made a lot of suggestions here. And I hope that they're going to entertain some of the suggestions we have," said Neal, whose committee is in charge of tax policy.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized Trump's payroll tax cut idea as too broad and said that any aid package should focus on those directly impacted by COVID-19 illnesses.
"The president seems to be focused more on the stock market than on the pandemic. But unless you deal with the pandemic, the stock market is going to keep getting worse and worse," Schumer said Monday.
Lawmakers did not include funding to reimburse providers for their COVID-19 treatment costs in an emergency supplemental package, and it is unclear whether such funding could be included in subsequent legislation. When asked if the administration was moving too quickly from healthcare policy to economic policy, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) said it is "a tricky issue."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday evening that she intends to unveil COVID-19 relief legislation this week, but was unsure if it will be ready for a vote before lawmakers leave for a weeklong recess on Thursday.
While it's unclear how the healthcare industry could be addressed in an economic stimulus package, the Trump administration is engaging in discussions with healthcare companies.
Pence, head of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, on Tuesday met with health insurance executives including Anthem CEO Gail Boudreaux, UnitedHealth Group CEO Dave Wichmann, Humana CEO Bruce Broussard, Centene Corp. CEO Michael Neidorff, America's Health Insurance Plans CEO Matt Eyles, CVS Health Executive Vice President Karen Lynch, Express Scripts CEO Tim Wentworth, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association Senior Vice President Justine Handelman, and Kaiser Permanente CEO Gregory Adams.
Pence said that insurers agreed to waive copays for COVID-19 testing, extend coverage for treatment and telehealth services, and "no surprise billing."
Pence is set to meet with hospital and trade group CEOs on Wednesday. The Federation of American Hospitals, HCA Healthcare CEO Sam Hazen, Association of American Medical Colleges CEO David Skorton, Ascension CEO Joesph Impicciche and American Hospital Association CEO Rick Pollack plan to attend the meeting. Other potential invitees did not respond to media inquiries.