Missoula Current: Tester: Future COVID-19 stimulus bill should be more targeted
By: Laura Lundquist
MISSOULA - With the number of COVID-19 cases on the rise in Montana, the state's senior senator is encouraging Montanans to take precautions to stay healthy while he works on funding and healthcare issues.
Before leaving Washington, D.C., for a two-week Congressional break, Sen. Jon Tester asked Montanans to tell him and the rest of the congressional delegation where the greatest needs remain while the nation continues to struggle due to the growing pandemic.
Tester anticipates that Congress could take up another COVID-19 funding bill when it reconvenes at the end of the month, so he wants to know where the money should go.
"What's in that (bill) is going to be the big question," Tester said. "I'll just tell you my crystal ball thing for now. I think there needs to be some money for food, I think there needs to be some money for healthcare."
Tester said several food bank managers have said they're having trouble getting shipments of food because COVID-19 has thrown the national food distribution system out of whack. So they suggest that Congress should provide more money to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.
SNAP provides financial assistance to low-income families to help them buy food, which not only takes the pressure off the food banks but also can be more effective if they need things that food banks can't get.
Municipalities have also asked for financial assistance. About two months ago, Missoula County anticipated having to spend more than $6 million for COVID-19 related expenses, money the county couldn't have anticipated and doesn't have.
But they aren't alone when it comes to sinking into the red. County budgets are further complicated by worries that some people who've lost jobs or least hours at work won't be able to pay their property taxes on time.
Local governments weren't specifically included in the previous bills that shunted $7 trillion to taxpayers and supposedly to small businesses to keep workers employed, although a number of large companies with questionable finances also took advantage.
Some local governments applied for money out of what the state received from the CARES Act, but even $1.25 billion isn't enough to make everyone whole, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases is climbing again.
In any future stimulus bills, Tester said he wanted the distribution of funding to be better handled.
"This package needs to be very targeted," Tester said. "If I was to be critical of any of the previous ones that were put out, there was just an attitude of getting the money out the door. In most cases, it did what it needed to do. But what has been the challenge for me is being able to provide oversight, to get access to how this money has been spent, and make sure it's going to the right people."
Finally, Tester said healthcare should still be a priority for any stimulus funding, and he'd like enough test kits to be available for anyone who wanted them.
Gov. Steve Bullock has hit his goal of testing 60,000 Montanans a month, making Montana one of only four states doing enough testing to possibly suppress the pandemic. The other three are Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont.
However, this week's sudden surge of cases has prompted Missoula County to restrict its testing as of June 30 to only people with symptoms and their close contacts. Meanwhile, some of Montana's smaller rural hospitals are beginning to worry that an influx of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm their limited resources.
Keeping rural hospitals afloat is part of the reason why Tester sponsored a resolution on Tuesday opposing the administration's efforts to negate the Affordable Care Act. Forty-six other senators are cosponsoring the resolution, but none are Republican.
If the Affordable Care Act goes away, rural hospitals would lose billions in federal funding and they'd have to provide more charity care, because around 120,000 Montanans would lose insurance coverage, including 85,000 who depend on expanded Medicaid.
In addition, almost half of Montanans have some sort of pre-existing condition and without the ACA, their insurance coverage for those conditions could be capped or even denied. Prescription medication costs would likely also increase.
"Unfortunately, even though this pandemic continues to grow, the president has doubled down on his administration's legal efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act," Tester said. "(We) urge the administration to halt its repeated attempts to dismantle our healthcare system and its protections for 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions."
Tester said future bills should also include funding to keep the U.S. Postal Service in operation.
The Postal Service is projecting a $13-billion revenue loss tied to the pandemic, Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan told lawmakers in April. A 2006 Congressional requirement to pre-fund the retirement benefits of its 630,000 employees creates another large financial burden.
Sen. Steve Daines introduced a bill in December that would repeal the requirement but the bill has languished in committee.
In April, the Trump administration blocked a $10-billion line of credit created for the in the COVID-19 stimulus packages because Trump insisted the Postal Service should be charging more for the delivery of Amazon packages.
The Postal Service is essential for many Montanans who, being more spread out, depend on the centuries-old institution more than people in other states, Tester said. The elderly depend on it for prescription medication delivery, and people in the most remote parts of the state depend on the mail to stay connected. Not everyone has broadband Internet, especially in more rural areas, Tester said.
"We've talked about the U.S. Postal Service before, and quite frankly, how some people think it needs to go away because people don't use it anymore. They couldn't be further from the truth," Tester said. "And that has been compounded by the effects of this pandemic. We're seeing more need for the mail and the U.S. Postal Service than ever before, because it plays such an essential role in remote areas across our state."