Bennie Thompson - Mississippi Free Press
U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, seen here speaking at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in 2019, says Democrats cannot support the Senate health plan because it does not include enough protections for “hard-working people” and is too focused on large corporations. Photo courtesy Bennie Thompson

‘America is Crying Out’: Will Federal COVID-19 ‘Bailout’ Help Mississippians with Fallout?

U.S. House Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, hopes Congress will pass “a bailout for everyday Americans instead of corporations” when Republicans and Democrats finally agree on an economic-stimulus compromise bill, his office told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday evening.

Republican and Democratic leaders are currently working toward a compromise between two competing proposals. The current Republican bill, introduced in the Senate, and the Democratic bill, introduced in the House, would each give Americans and businesses aid as the novel coronavirus outbreak threatens to sink the economy.

“I do think there is a real possibility that minds of goodwill can come to an agreement. The realities on the ground out in our country demand that and cry out for it,” Mississippi’s senior U.S. senator, Republican Roger Wicker, said in a speech on the Senate floor in Washington, D.C. yesterday.

Cash Assistance for Families

In the House, though, Congressman Thompson is critical of the Republican bill, which he thinks leans too heavily in favor of corporations and does not do enough for working families, his press secretary told the Mississippi Free Press tonight.

“Most Americans can’t withstand taking out a loan. Most corporations can. They have collateral,” James said. “They have the wealth to withstand this kind of emergency. Most everyday Americans don’t, so that money really should go towards them.”

The House bill, which Democrats introduced Monday night, would give individuals up to $1,500 in cash, or up to $7,500 for families. The Republican bill, which failed to get enough votes on Sunday and Monday to advance in the Senate, would give individuals up to $1,200 in tax rebates.

The Republican proposal, however, would phase out assistance for individuals who made more than $75,000 in 2018 or couples filing jointly who made more than $150,000. The Democratic bill would allow that same group to get assistance, but they would have to pay it back in taxes within a three-year period.

The Democratic bill also expands unemployment benefits, giving unemployed people an extra $600 per week on top of current federal and state benefits.

The Senate bill would also help working families by suspending the payroll tax. The House proposal offers a different mechanism to help families by expanding the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit and the dependent tax credit. The House proposal would also boost the amount of money the federal government pays to help people who get health insurance through Affordable Care Act subsidies on healthcare.gov.

Health Care Provider Assistance

In a letter Tuesday, U.S. House Rep. Steven Palazzo, a Republican who represents Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District, called on House leaders to ensure the final bill provides enough relief for rural hospitals.

“Almost half of rural hospitals nationwide regularly operate at near loss. Some larger providers might be temporarily able to absorb significant losses from this pandemic, but rural providers are not,” wrote Palazzo, who was among a handful of House members who did not show up to vote on an earlier coronavirus relief bill.

A 2019 Navigant study found that about half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals were in danger of closing even before the COVID-19 crisis. Experts attribute much of that instability, though, to the State of Mississippi’s refusal to accept $1 billion in federal funds to expand Medicaid to an additional 300,000 Mississippians. Palazzo opposes expanding the program, however, as does Gov. Tate Reeves. Both his Republican and Democrats in last fall’s gubernatorial election supported expansion.

“Mississippi’s rural hospitals were in danger of closing before this crisis happened, so this adds on stress to it. It definitely doesn’t make it better,” James told the MFP Tuesday night, noting that Congressman Thompson has long supported Medicaid expansion. “Some of this could have been avoided had we accepted Medicaid expansion under Gov. Phil Bryant.”

Both current federal bills include assistance for hospitals and other health-care providers, but the House bill includes more. While the Senate bill sets aside $75 billion for health -care providers, the House bill would give them $150 billion in assistance, along with $80 billion in low-interest loans.

The American Hospital Association wrote a letter to Congress on March 19 asking for $100 billion for hospitals across the country. Hospitals and clinics, the AHA wrote, are struggling amid patient and elective procedure cancellations, the cost of COVID-19 testing, the cost of additional equipment needed to protect health-care workers, and the looming specter of a surge of COVID-19 patients in ICUs and emergency rooms.

“There are extraordinary efforts to supply needed equipment. Front line health care personnel are not able to go to work due to lack of childcare and closing of schools, resulting in personnel shortages and significant expenses to backfill staff—when that is even possible,” the AHA wrote. “Hospitals need help providing childcare for their staff members so they can come to work.”

In its letter last Thursday, the AHA told Congress, hospitals were already losing “up to $1 million per day,” but that the organization expected those losses to increase alongside the outbreak. There were only 11,000 confirmed cases in the country on March 19, though. Today, just five days later, Johns Hopkins University estimates that there are more than 52,000 confirmed cases nationwide.

“As Congress negotiates a third coronavirus funding package, our nation’s community health centers are on the frontlines of this crisis, providing care to 29 million Americans,” Thompson, who serves the state’s 2nd Congressional District, tweeted on March 21. “They need a massive influx of cash to treat patients. This is a matter of life and death.”

When she announced the House bill on Tuesday, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Donald Trump to urge states that have not expanded the program to do so in order to help lessen the burden on rural hospitals.

He has not done so publicly, to date.

Help for Businesses, Education, Utilities

The Democrats’ proposal in the House would give businesses $500 billion in grants and interest-free loans, including $300 billion in forgivable loans that would help cover short-term payroll costs. The Republican bill offers a smaller $300 billion in federal loans through the Small Business Administration.

With schools shut down across the country amid the outbreak, both bills include assistance for K-12 education, but at different amounts. The House bill includes $60 billion to help public schools, while the Senate bill offers $20 billion.

The House bill would also provide $1.5 billion to help low-income people pay water bills amid the ongoing crisis, while banning utility providers from cutting off services. The proposed legislation would bar internet service providers, who are not regulated like utilities, from cutting off services. The Mississippi Public Service Commission offered a temporary reprieve from utility cutoffs earlier this month.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have both criticized one another’s bills, with Democrats accusing Republicans of inserting a $500 billion “corporate slush fund,” which would allow the U.S. treasury secretary to dole out money to corporations without having to publicly name recipients for six months.

Republicans criticize Democrats for proposing billions to expand mail-in voting systems, which Democrats say is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as large numbers of people head to the voting booths in upcoming primaries, runoffs and the November general election. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves recently pushed back the state’s U.S. House District 2 primary runoff from March 31 to June 23.

Roger Wicker - Mississippi Free Press
U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker says the Senate COVID-19 relief proposal includes “bipartisan” elements. Democrats and Republicans “can come to an agreement” to help families deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19, he says. Photo courtesy Roger Wicker.

 

Wicker: ‘America Is Crying Out for This’

On Monday, Congressman Thompson said that he would not support the Senate bill because it focused too much on helping big corporations instead of individuals and families.

“Democrats are not supporting any bill that only protects the rich and corporations,” Mississippi’s only Democratic congressman, who is a lifelong resident of Bolton, Miss., tweeted. “We want to expand unemployment benefits, including loan debt, and protections for the working class. Let us keep working until hard working Americans are taken care of during this time.”

Wicker and Mississippi’s junior U.S. senator, Cindy Hyde-Smith, both support the current Senate bill. On Tuesday, Hyde-Smith’s Democratic opponent in the November election, Mike Espy, criticized the proposal for providing “relief to corporations without receiving a guarantee that all employees they had laid off would be rehired immediately without exception.”

“As written, the Mitch McConnell bill was too vague and nontransparent,” Espy said in a statement provided to the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday. “Five-hundred billion dollars is given to the Treasury Department with very little controls or oversight. There was no requirement that (the Treasury Department) report to Congress which companies received the funds until six months later.”

On Monday, though, Mississippi’s senior senator defended the Senate bill, calling it “bipartisan.”

“America is crying out for this,” Wicker said on the Senate floor. “The financial markets are watching. And our economy is teetering on the brink. We need to get this done.”

Trump Administration Pushing for Early End to Safety Measures

Earlier today, Trump pushed the idea of ending COVID-19 precautions like social distancing and isolation early in order to help the flagging economy—an idea that medical experts warn would prove calamitous and lead to an explosion in coronavirus cases nationwide.

On Tuesday afternoon, Alliance Defending Freedom President CEO Michael Farris sent a letter to his organization’s supporters, telling them about a conversation he had shared with Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president “assured” ADF that the administration is seeking a “proper balance between the obvious medical concerns for our jobs and businesses,” Farris wrote. His evangelical organization promotes theocratic laws in states across the country, including Mississippi, that target gay rights and women’s rights, including the right to have an abortion.

Former federal Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi was a founding member of ADF’s board.

During a briefing Tuesday, Trump said he wanted to end COVID-19 safety measures like social distancing and isolation by Easter, April 12, to help the economy. Trump has been unnerved as the stock market plummeted in recent weeks, dropping below their levels when he first took office in January 2017. Economists also expect the unemployment rate to quickly skyrocket from what had been historic lows.

“The president is more concerned with the economy than anything,” James told the Mississippi Free Press Tuesday night. “Let’s be honest. That was his pride and joy and the thing he touted most—the economy and unemployment rate. That’s his main concern at this moment, but I don’t think we can trust this president who said just weeks ago that this was a hoax, who just a couple weeks ago said we had this under control, when we really did not and still do not. You just can’t believe this president.”

Trump’s supporters at the ADF, though, expressed excitement at the prospect of ending social distancing and isolation measures soon.

“I have no doubts that the Trump administration gets it and is supportive of getting us all back to work as soon as possible” in “weeks, not months,” the ADF’s Farris wrote after the call with Pence on Tuesday. When callers asked Pence if the country might move to only quarantining the vulnerable, “the vice president was clear that approach is being considered and is a question of proper timing,” Farris wrote.

Experts have warned against this kind of approach, not only because young and healthy people can easily spread the virus to more vulnerable people, but also because no one is immune. The Mississippi State Department of Health released data on March 21 showing that about half of residents as of then who had tested positive for COVID-19 were under age 50, and the 18-29 age group had only two fewer cases at the time than did those over age 60. In France, people under age 60 are accounting for more than half of serious, life-threatening cases of coronavirus.

In a video message with Oxford, Miss., Mayor Robynn Tannehill last week, Dr. Jeff Dennis, an internal medicine doctor in Lafayette County, similarly raised concerns that young people who may not get sick themselves may transmit the virus to elderly people.

“The older people we know are going to be the ones most affected by this disease,” Dennis said. “The young people have a critical role in this. They are the vectors for a lot of the spread of this disease. They might not feel any kind of symptoms but yet be carrying it from household to household, and so that is a challenge. This could be the most important role you have in this community in your life as far as a citizen of this town.”

Reeves: ‘Put Your Own Family on Lockdown’

During the Tuesday morning call that ADF participated in, Pence had “emphasized that the government response is federal in nature,” Farris wrote.

Indeed, governors across all U.S. states and territories are implementing a patchwork of measures, as are mayors who get too little statewide guidance, as the Mississippi Free Press reported Saturday. Mississippi’s neighbors to the east and west, Alabama and Louisiana, have both taken more significant steps statewide than has Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves. Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, ordered a statewide lockdown starting yesterday at 5 p.m., which bans “non-essential travel” in the state, only allowing people to leave their homes for things like health-care appointments, grocery shopping and to perform necessary work.

Mississippi’s governor insisted in a live-streamed statement on Monday that such drastic steps are not necessary in the Magnolia State, yet. “If you think a statewide lockdown is necessary, you should put your own family in lockdown,” Reeves said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, though, Reeves signed a new executive order ramping up statewide action. The new orders echo those a number of mayors and local leaders signed across the state. Mississippians must now avoid “non-essential gatherings of 10 people or more,” the order states.

Reeves’ order also suspends dine-in services at restaurants and bars throughout the state, allowing only for drive-thru, takeout or delivery services. The order also bans Mississippians from visiting hospitals, nursing homes or long-term care facilities, many of which have already instituted no-visitor rules of their own accord. Businesses, where possible, must also allow all employees to work from home. It also exempts most Mississippi businesses from the new rules.

On Tuesday, Mississippi saw its biggest increase in COVID-19 cases, yet, with 71 new confirmed cases added; the total now stands at 320 cases each. Even today’s Mississippi numbers are likely significantly lower than the true count, though, because testing capacity remains constrained in the U.S. More information on UMMC’s COVID-19 prevention measures is available online at umc.edu/coronavirus and cdc.gov/coronavirus.

On a per capita basis, COVID-19 cases are growing more quickly in Mississippi than the national average.

The Mississippi Free Press has a clickable map showing diagnosed coronavirus cases across the state.

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