Elizabeth Warren announces plan for swift federal action on coronavirus


Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Monday will lay out a detailed plan for swift federal action to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

The proposed initiative, which Warren’s presidential campaign shared with HuffPost on Sunday evening, is not another item on Warren’s agenda for what she would do if she becomes president.

It is, instead, a list of steps that she would like to see Congress and President Donald Trump take right now, in order to contain the outbreak, to help those affected by it, and to stop the economy from falling into a recession.

Key actions would include making tests and treatments free to anybody who needs them, providing paid leave to people who must miss work or care for relatives, and propping up the economy with about $400 billion in new government spending.

Many of the moves Warren has in mind would mirror actions the federal government has taken to address past outbreaks and pandemic scares, including H1N1 in 2009 and SARS in 2003.

The plan follows up on a broader public health agenda she released when news about the outbreak became prominent in January. It also fleshes out promises Warren has been making in just the past few days, as the outbreak has gained a footing in the U.S. and seized the nation’s attention.

As of early Monday, public health officials had confirmed nearly 90 cases and were expecting to find many more with increased testing. Over the weekend, two patients died in the Seattle area, which seems to be the center of a major outbreak.

State and federal officials have urged Americans to remain calm and say that, although scientists are still learning about the disease, coronavirus is likely to be a lot like the flu, posing a serious threat primarily to the elderly and to people with underlying medical problems. The Seattle cases, for example, appear to include several older patients at a long-term care facility.

But that still means a large number of Americans face the risk of serious, potentially life-threatening illness. And even people most likely to handle the disease well, because of their relative youth or good health, may struggle because they can’t afford to pay for tests and treatments ― or because they can’t afford to miss work.

Already, the news is full of outrage-generating stories, like the patient in Miami who got a surprise medical bill of $3,275 because his insurance company wouldn’t cover the costs of tests he sought after experiencing symptoms consistent with the virus.

Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination have said the outbreak highlights holes in the nation’s safety net, reinforcing the case for policies such as universal health care and paid sick leave. But those are major, long-term policy changes that presently have nowhere near the support they need to pass either the House or the Senate.

So, for now, Warren is saying that lawmakers should focus on quick, temporary measures that could speed through Congress as part of emergency legislation that some leaders have already promised to take up in the coming days.

“I rang the alarm for years before the 2008 financial crisis and we could have reduced the severity of the crash if we had acted quickly,” said Warren. “My plan is what a competent administration would be pushing for ― assertive and feasible steps to limit the spread of the virus and get ahead of its potentially huge economic effects.”

What Warren’s Plan Would Do

Warren’s plan has several provisions, starting with attempts to help people who need or will need medical attention.

She wants Congress to make coronavirus testing and treatment free by requiring that private insurers cover it with no out-of-pocket costs, having public insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid do the same, and then creating a new uncompensated care fund that would finance tests and treatments for people who have no insurance.

Warren also wants the federal government to provide emergency funding to safety net providers, such as community clinics, as well to state public health departments. This money could mean hiring additional health care workers or setting up new, temporary facilities ― perhaps including mobile or drive-through units so that people could get tests and treatments without infecting others.

As for a vaccine, Warren would like the government to guarantee bulk purchases in order to encourage mass production, and then to make sure vaccines are available at no charge.

If, after a vaccine is developed, a private manufacturer charges “an outrageous price,” Warren said, the government should consider granting a production license to other manufacturers. The government threatened something similar during the anthrax scare of 2001.

Health care is only one part of Warren’s strategy. She also wants to create an emergency paid leave program, under which anybody who has to miss work because they have coronavirus ― or because they have to care for somebody with coronavirus ― could get money to replace lost wages. Campaign officials said that the emergency paid leave initiative could operate through existing unemployment insurance programs.

The paid leave program has a public health rationale: Today, many workers don’t stay home when they are sick, potentially infecting others, because they can’t afford to lose the income. A paid leave program would change that, helping to keep them financially afloat while protecting their co-workers from coronavirus exposure.

Warren’s other big proposal involves the economy.

Coronavirus has already disrupted the supply chain from China, where the disease first appeared. And, as the virus spreads in the U.S. and elsewhere, economic activity is likely to slow down across the country ― with travel, entertainment, and in-person retail likely to take major hits.

Some forecasters are predicting the economy will go through at least one quarter of zero growth.

To avoid further contraction, Warren is calling a stimulus package that would include increased aid to states, infrastructure funding, and unemployment benefits.

In addition, Warren wants to make low- or no-interest loans available to companies “negatively affected by supply chain disruptions, reductions in tourism, or other temporary coronavirus-related impacts, and that will use the funds to avoid layoffs and hours reductions, not for additional executive compensation, dividends, or share buybacks.”

Campaign officials did not provide a price tag for the entire package, because the full extent of the public health crisis is not yet clear. But the stimulus would likely be the largest single component, by far. Officials said Warren envisioned that coming to about $400 billion.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.