By Rep. Mike Yantachka
The ubiquitous news regarding the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to pervade our consciousness. The Vermont Department of Health, Vermont Emergency Management, and the various health care providers around the state continue to take steps to monitor the situation and adopt a coordinated response. Vermonters are advised to keep abreast of the Health Department’s status reports at their website or by calling 2-1-1. My earlier report on the initial Vermont response can be found at my website.
I am writing this a day after the Vermont General Assembly adjourned for a one-week hiatus to essentially “distance” members from the Statehouse out of concern that business-as-usual might increase chances for spreading the virus. It is also a day after a state of emergency was declared at both the national and state levels by President Trump and Governor Scott respectively. In order to expedite action on legislation responding to the crisis, three House committees, Commerce and Economic Development, Health Care, and Human Services, worked on amendments to existing bills in order to vote on a COVID-19 response package by the end of the week. As Governor Scott was holding a press conference announcing his declaration, the Vermont House passed two bills and a resolution to provide some economic relief to Vermont employers and employees impacted by the virus and to our health care providers.
An amendment to H.681, a bill dealing with employment insurance, will hold employers harmless from unemployment insurance rate increases if an employee voluntarily leaves to care for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 or if the employer must cease operations at the request of a health official or voluntarily if workers were exposed to COVID-19 at the workplace. The affected employee(s) must be rehired by the employer when the employer resumes operations or when the individual has completed quarantine. Help for employees is also included. Employees who leave employment voluntarily do not normally qualify for unemployment compensation. However, an employee who leaves to care for a family member diagnosed with COVID-19 will be eligible for unemployment compensation. Because of the legislature’s care in past years to build up the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, money is available to provide this relief.
The House also amended H.742, a bill to fund training of Emergency Medical Personnel, to assist health care providers during the COVID-19 emergency. During the state of emergency, in order to preserve the ability of providers to continue to operate, the Secretary of Human services is authorized to waive, modify or postpone the provider tax assessed on hospitals, clinics and others provided that the Secretary obtain the approval of the Joint Fiscal Committee and, if necessary, the Emergency Board. If the normal operation of health care, long term care, home- and community-based, and childcare services are impacted because patients or clients are not seeking services due to the virus, the Agency is authorized to provide payments to sustain the services and enable continued operation during the emergency. In addition, the bill provides for issuing temporary licenses to retired medical professionals or those with valid licenses from other states to join the workforce to supplement the potential loss of workers due to the virus.
Finally, a resolution was passed urging the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to suspend implementation of the Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds Rule that revokes the valid immigration status of individuals receiving public assistance. It also urges the Department to refrain from arresting individuals at hospitals, health care facilities, or coronavirus testing sites for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and to issue a statement to that effect. This is a necessary step to encourage persons, regardless of immigration status, to seek necessary care that will help control the spread of the virus.
When the General Assembly reconvenes, this COVID-19 package can be acted on quickly by the Senate. Additional details about any forthcoming relief from the federal government will also inform further action. We are all working in harmony to put the very best package forward to help Vermonters weather this crisis.