Coronavirus Emergency Funding Deal Is ‘Close,’ Pelosi Says

Coronavirus Emergency Funding Deal Is ‘Close,’ Pelosi Says

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Plus: Sanders targets a tax break for executives
Thursday, February 27, 2020

Pelosi: Congress Close to a Bipartisan Deal on Coronavirus Funding

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that lawmakers are nearing agreement on emergency funding for the government’s coronavirus response.

"We're coming close to a bipartisan agreement in the Congress as to how we can go forward with a number that is a good start," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference. "We don't know how much we will need. Hopefully not so much more because prevention will work, but nonetheless we have to be ready to do what we need to do.”

The Trump administration requested $1.25 billion in new funding and proposed redirecting at least that much from other programs, but lawmakers in both parties have said that falls far short of what is needed. Negotiators were reportedly considering a package of between $4 billion and $8.5 billion.

Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a joint statement Thursday morning insisting that any emergency money Congress provides “must be entirely new funding—not stolen from other accounts.” They also said that the package must include provisions to ensure that the Trump administration cannot shift the coronavirus funds to other uses.

Vaccine affordability a potential issue: Pelosi and Schumer also said that any bill must guarantee that vaccines developed for the coronavirus “are affordable and available to all that need it.” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, a former lobbyist and executive at drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co., had generated some backlash earlier in the week by testifying before Congress that he could not promise that a vaccine would be affordable. “We can’t control that price because we need the private sector to invest,” he said.

But some Republicans said that affordability has not been a problem with pandemic vaccines before, and others suggested the issue could be addressed in other legislation once the emergency funding was passed.  Health officials have said it will take at least 12 to 18 months for a vaccine to be developed.

“I think that we’d better take care of the immediate problem and then use other pieces of legislation to get down the cost of drugs,” said Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley, according to Roll Call. Grassley has developed a bipartisan bill on drug prices that faces opposition from the pharmaceutical industry and many of his fellow Republicans.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said at his own press conference Thursday that he is hopeful that Congress “can get this done next week” and that he expects strong bipartisan support for the negotiated package. McCarthy declined to discuss the amount of funding Congress would likely provide, but he dismissed Schumer’s call for $8.5 billion. "Just picking a number out of a hat like that never seems to work properly," he said. “I would like to know what the experts believe they need, make sure we fund that.” McCarthy also said that Republicans would not be seeking to offset the costs of the emergency package.

The bottom line: Both Pelosi and McCarthy took some partisan jabs at the other side in their comments, and a push by Democrats to ensure vaccine affordability reportedly could complicate negotiations, but lawmakers likely feel enough pressure to make sure they come together fairly quickly to pass supplemental funding for the virus response.

Quote of the Day

“The U.S. experience with a pandemic early in the calendar year will be uniquely challenging given that the vast majority of Americans have privately administered plans that (increasingly) rely on deductibles/cost-sharing as a fairly blunt utilization-management tool. We can debate whether that’s an effective strategy to combat moral hazard, but it clearly serves as a significant—and uniquely American—obstacle to pandemic containment & treatment.”

– Dr. John Graves, who teaches health policy at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. In a series of tweets, Graves discussed the U.S. response to the coronavirus, noting that the Supreme Court could overturn the Affordable Care Act in the next few months, potentially stripping health care from millions of Americans even as the virus is still spreading.

Sanders Targets Major Executive Tax Break

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled new legislation Thursday that takes aim at a tax breaks for retirement plans that benefit many highly paid executives.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), “could dramatically alter compensation at major U.S. companies,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin and Theo Francis.

The target: Some large companies allow top executives to defer compensation to a later date, with the aim of reducing their tax burden. Unlike conventional 401(k) retirement plans, there are no limits on the amount of money that can be deferred, providing highly compensated employees with a substantial potential tax break.

What the bill would do: The senators would tax compensation as soon as its vests rather than when it is distributed, a move they say could bring in $15 billion in federal revenue. The funds would be used to shore up the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which provides a safety net for private-sector pension plans.

Sanders says: “It is outrageous that a corporate executive in America can get unlimited, special tax privileges on hundreds of millions of dollars in savings, while an ordinary worker can only get tax deferment of up to $19,500 on a 401(k),” Sanders said Thursday. “We are going to end these tax breaks for CEOs and use that money to protect 1.7 million workers who are worried about a decent retirement as they face instability in their current pension plans.”

Big numbers: The Sanders plan references a new study by the Government Accountability Office that looked at deferred payment plans for 2,300 top-level executives at the 500 largest publicly traded companies. The report found that the executives had more than $13 billion stashed in tax-deferred funds, with some CEOs sitting on more than $100 million.

Not a new idea: The bill is similar to a proposal backed by some Republicans ahead of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act in 2017, the Journal’s Rubin and Francis report, but that proposal was abandoned in the face of stiff resistance from CEOs. "Republicans and Democrats alike have called for ending these tax breaks, and it’s past time to get it done," Van Hollen said.

Big Hurdle for Sanders’ Plan to Cancel Student Debt

Bernie Sanders wants to eliminate $1.6 trillion in student debt, to be paid for by a tax on financial transactions, but doing so won’t be easy, says Josh Mitchell of The Wall Street Journal.

The main problem for Sanders is that most Americans don’t support the plan, with 57% of respondents in a poll last fall saying they oppose the idea of cancelling all student debt. And the politics are particularly thorny for Sanders as he prepares for an increasingly likely general election campaign, Mitchell says: “Among the strongest opponents are groups Democrats hope to peel away from President Trump: Rust Belt voters, independents, whites, men and voters in rural areas.”

Early-Onset Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease Have Tripled, Blue Cross Says

The rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among commercially insured Americans aged 30 to 64 increased by 200% from 2013 to 2017, according to a new analysis by the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.

The report says that about 131,000 people between the ages of 30 and 64 were diagnosed with either form of dementia in 2017, based on data on medical claims from more than 48 million people insured by Blue Cross Blue Shield companies.

“An increase in Alzheimer’s diagnoses among younger generations can lead to even greater economic consequences and mental stress for those that provide them care,” the health insurer association said in a press release. “Nearly 16 million family members and friends provided over 18 billion hours of unpaid care to persons with Alzheimer’s disease in America, costing an estimated $221 billion.”

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Navy Chief: Losing Shipbuilding Funds ‘Not Helpful’

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Thursday that the Trump administration’s diversion of funds from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget to border wall construction was “not helpful” to the current effort to expand the fleet.

The shipbuilding budget took a hit earlier this month when the Pentagon announced it would be using $911 million designated for two shipbuilding programs to pay for border wall construction. On top of that, President Trump’s 2021 budget request cuts $4.1 billion from the Navy’s shipbuilding budget relative to the current year.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Modly said the loss of funds would make it harder to hit the 355-ship target. “To be frank, it’s not helpful because it takes a ship out of a plan we’re driving toward,” Modly said, apparently referring to the loss of funding for a Virginia-class submarine in Trump’s 2021 budget request.


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