Guest Columnist

Relief bill must address vulnerable Iowans

Members of the House of Representatives walk down the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 27, 2020, after
Members of the House of Representatives walk down the steps of Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 27, 2020, after passing a coronavirus rescue package. Acting with exceptional resolve in an extraordinary time, the House rushed President Donald Trump a $2.2 trillion rescue package Friday, tossing a life preserver to a U.S. economy and health care system left flailing by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Negotiations in Washington on the next federal COVID-19 relief package have come to a standstill, leaving millions of unemployed Americans without critical support to help them navigate the difficult economic realities of the pandemic. Without a new federal relief bill and increasingly slimmer budgets, states are left to make hard choices of what programs to fund. This puts state Medicaid programs in a precarious position when sky-high enrollments are already pushing them to brink.

It has been more than two months since the House passed a stimulus bill that would increase desperately needed federal funding for our overwhelmed Medicaid program, extend the $600 supplemental unemployment benefits through January 21, and provide funding to state and local governments that are facing record budget deficits. It would also provide hazard pay to those on the frontlines who are risking their lives to provide healthcare, food, and other essentials to Americans across the nation.

This bill – the HEROES Act – would be a critical step in correcting this off-course ship and working towards an actual recovery from the pandemic America has suffered through for months. And it would be an affirmation of Congress’s ability to provide relief in a time of crisis.

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and her colleagues, however, saw things differently.

Led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate chose to delay the introduction of their version of a bill, called the HEALS Act. What it does include is troubling: A reduction to $400 per week in unemployment benefits will also cause millions of families to suffer, as will limited funding for safety-net hospitals compared to the HEROES Act.

What the bill doesn’t include is even more troubling: no increase in federal Medicaid funding; no additional funding for state and local governments; and no hazard pay for frontline workers.

It’s appalling that Congress decided to recess the day before the $600 supplemental unemployment benefit ran out—leaving more than 30 million Americans with uncertainty over whether or not they can pay their bills, pay for groceries, or provide for their families.

The time for the Senate to compromise on a bill that will help all Americans, including Iowans, was weeks ago.

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A final relief package without a guaranteed increase in Medicaid funding for state programs is bad news for Iowa.

Iowa’s seniors, children, and people with disabilities rely on Medicaid to access services that safeguard their health — especially amid a pandemic. But the Senate refuses to reach an agreement despite the state’s Medicaid program increasing risk of instability as its enrollment is projected to grow anywhere between 94,000 to 168,000 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And to make things worse, Iowa’s state budget faces a shortfall of $360 million in the next two years.

Bipartisan governors have urged Congress and the Trump administration to get back to the negotiating table and do their job. We need Sen. Ernst to be a part of this process — to speak up for Iowans who are struggling and prioritize funding for Medicaid, unemployment assistance, and frontline workers. Americans want to have faith that their government can do the right thing and protect them. Lives are at stake.

Denise Rathman MSW is the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers Iowa Chapter.

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