How federal COVID relief plan addresses public health needs


Welcome to the end of the first month of 2021, after what felt like the longest year in history.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 relief and recovery remains one of Health Forward’s top priorities as vaccination efforts ramp up and the federal response to the pandemic continues to evolve with the Biden Administration taking office last week. 

We recently adopted new policy agendas, which include advocacy for addressing public health injustices, equitable recovery from the pandemic, and short-term and long-term improvements to the funding of and provision of public health in both Kansas and Missouri. If you missed our policy agenda presentation and session previews from our government affairs consultants earlier this month, see the slides here.  

As there is alignment with our policy agendas and is critical to the public health and economic recovery of our region, Health Forward has been tracking the relief and recovery packages proposed by the federal government.   

In December, Congress passed a long-anticipated second COVID relief package as part of the Bipartisan-Bicameral Omnibus COVID Relief Deal. The Biden administration is expected to quickly implement their new, more aggressive, relief plan, with some work already underway.  Recent efforts under both former president Trump’s administration and the Biden administration promise economic relief in a variety of forms and means for more equitable dissemination of COVID assistance. 

The following is an overview of some of what we know from the current legislation and what we might expect in the next few weeks to months from the Biden Administration.  

The legislation signed by former President Trump appropriated more than $1.4 trillion for fiscal year 2021 and included $900 billion for pandemic relief:

  • The legislation extended the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program, in which the federal government supplements state unemployment benefits. This round of the program includes benefits of $300 per week for up to 10 weeks (down from the former $600 per week earlier last year). 
  • $25 billion was appropriated for state and local governments to provide temporary and targeted rental assistance. Funding will flow directly to both states and local governments with more than 200,000 residents. States must prioritize low-income households and households with unemployed members. 
  • The federal eviction moratorium was extended to the end of January, but without further action, 30-40 million Americans will be at risk of losing their homes according to estimates by the National Low Income Housing Coalition
  • A new round of stimulus payments provide a $600 check to individuals making under $75,000 per year and smaller payments to those making up to $87,000 per year. 
  • An additional $13 billion goes toward the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
  • $3 billion will go toward the Healthcare Provider Relief Fund, which reimburses providers for added expenses and lost revenues due to the pandemic. 
  • $68 billion in funding for COVID testing, contact tracing, vaccine development, and vaccine distribution. Of that, $20 billion is aimed at making the vaccine available at no cost. 
  • Finally, the No Surprises Act, adopted as a part of the larger package, includes a provision ending surprise medical billing. This is a topic that has been at the center of policy discussions for years, and now patients would be required to receive a cost estimate three days before any scheduled procedure.  

The week prior to taking office, President Joe Biden unveiled his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) for economic and health care relief.  Since his swearing in on January 20, the president has quickly started rolling out pieces of the plan, and we can expect swift action in the next few weeks. 

The administration’s strategy will be focused on restoring trust with the American people, creating an accelerated vaccination plan, mitigating community spread, additional emergency relief, and addressing disparities in COVID response. 

  • ARP would increase the individual stimulus payments to $2,000 (meaning a $1,400 payment for those that already received their second stimulus payment). 
  • Expand and extend the COVID-19 related paid leave program under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA). If enacted as outlined, the plan would require all employers to offer FFCRA leave and extend the benefit through Sept. 31, 2021 (the benefits expired on December 31). 
  • Expedite vaccinations by adding an additional $20 billion to establish more vaccination sites, open eligibility to additional groups, hire a vaccination workforce, and launch a large-scale public education campaign. 
  • Add additional funding for housing assistance and extend the eviction moratorium until March. The proposal outlined would also seek funds for attorney fees to represent individuals facing evictions for non-payment of rent.
  • The plan calls for establishing an equity task force to address racial and and ethnic disparities in rates of infection, illness, and death. In addition to the task force, the plan calls for expansion of data collection on high-risk populations in order to create targeted responses. 

Legislation at the federal level significantly impacts how funding flows into our states and our region. We are following a number of bills that have been filed in Kansas and in Missouri that would limit the state and local government’s ability to respond quickly in times of emergency.

In Missouri, a few lawmakers have proposed bills that would remove authority from local health departments related to infectious or communicable diseases and limit their ability to make critical public health decisions, including Senate Bill 56.

Similarly, we also saw efforts to limit Governor Kelly’s authorities related to emergency declarations at the tail end of the 2020 legislative session. The ability to allocate emergency funding and make thoughtful and quick decisions is imperative in times of crisis, and we plan to closely follow activity related to public health authority.

Additionally, advocating for increased public health funding has been one of our priorities for years, and the pandemic has exacerbated the need to counteract the ongoing disinvestment in public health. It has also highlighted racial, ethnic, and geographic inequities that already existed across our systems, and the need to disaggregate public health data to better track the outcomes of the pandemic so that resources can be equitably deployed.  

We are pleased by the proposed increases in federal relief and the inclusion of an equity focus of President Biden’s plan, and encouraged that the attention of our federal legislators remains on how individuals are to recover from the pandemic. Health Forward’s continued advocacy on these issues, and that of our partners, is critical to an equitable recovery from the pandemic.