COVID-19 Relief Bill: What's Next

July 10, 2020

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said recently that he is leaning toward five-year liability protection for businesses as part of the next COVID-19 relief bill.  The potential parameters of a liability shield were a significant addition to the consistent message the leader has been giving for many weeks: a go-slow approach and that the legislation will be written “in his office” before the time comes to begin talks with the Democrats.

Window closing: While there is a smattering of virtual committee hearings next week, neither house returns to Washington for votes until July 20, setting up a short time frame to conclude work on the next COVID-19 bill.  (Each house of Congress annually plans to adjourn for the summer, typically the last week of July or the first week of August.)  The pandemic relief bill could push in-person attendance to August 14, but no later, as the Democratic convention begins August 17 with the Republicans meeting the next week. 

Distant starting points: In May, the House passed a wide-ranging, $3 trillion bill known as the HEROES Act.  Since then, McConnell has signaled a minimalist approach with his priority being the liability shield.  He recently floated the idea of another round of direct checks for workers making under $40,000 and another influx of cash for the small business loan program.  There will likely be a key battle over the extension of the $600 federal unemployment insurance premium, which is due to expire at month’s end.  Some Republican lawmakers are open to a bonus for workers who return to their jobs.

Employer health coverage impact: The House-passed HEROES Act included a number of provisions that would substantially impact employer health care plans if included in the Senate bill, including:

  • Subsidizing 100% of COBRA coverage for former employees and partially subsidizing such coverage for furloughed employees;

  • A "risk corridor" program for self-insured and fully-insured employer health plans for 2020 and 2021 that would subsidize 75% of the increase in plan costs over 105% of the previous year; and

  • A prohibition on balance billing for COVID-19 testing and treatment that would require reimbursement for the claim to be negotiated with the provider without burden on the employee. 

Intraparty squabbles?  McConnell will have the support of most Republicans, but you can expect to see much more griping about the growing deficit and the large chunk of CARES money that has not yet been spent. 

Prediction:  In early to mid-August, Congress will agree on a bill with money for state and local governments, direct payments, extended UI with a premium amount that is calibrated to the worker's pre-UI income, and more money for small business.  But what else?  Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wants federal funding for mail-in elections.  McConnell wants liability protections.  A trade-off perhaps?  Another possible place for bipartisan agreement could be funding for childcare providers.   

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