GOP wants unspent COVID funds for debt limit. Biden is open, but health experts aren't.

President Joe Biden is taking a "hard look" at whether remaining COVID relief funds are needed.

WASHINGTON − The trillions of dollars Congress approved since 2020 for fighting the coronavirus pandemic were piled onto the federal deficit as an emergency need that didn’t have to be offset with spending cuts or revenue hikes.

Now that the emergency is over, House Republicans want to take back the less than 1% of remaining funds.

It’s one of the demands they’ve made in exchange for agreeing to avoid a default on the nation’s debt, which could happen as soon as June 1.

And it’s something President Joe Biden has said he’d take a “hard look at it.”

“We don’t need it all,” Biden told reporters earlier this month. “It’s on the table.”

But mayors are still counting on transit funding and other help. Some nursing homes say they still need their relief payments. And public health advocates worry rescinding funds will hurt efforts to prepare for the next virus and take money away from a persistently underfunded public health system.

“It’s pennywise and pound foolish,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who served on Biden's COVID transition team. “Because there will be additional pandemics.”

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the money was intended for the COVID-19 pandemic which he said is over.

"If the money was authorized to fight the pandemic but was not spent during the pandemic, it should not be spent after the pandemic is over,” he said last month.

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President Joe Biden walks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., as he departs the Capitol following the annual St. Patrick's Day gathering, in Washington, Friday, March 17, 2023.

The federal public health emergency declared at the beginning of 2020 ended May 11, though Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra emphasized fighting COVID-19 remains a public health priority. That includes protecting those at highest risk and monitoring the latest variants, Becerra said when the emergency declaration expired.

The amount of funding remaining from six laws passed during the public health emergency is a moving target.

When the GOP-controlled House passed a bill in April to raise the debt limit in exchange for cutting various types of spending, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated clawing back pandemic funding would save about $30 billion. The bean counters excluded $316 billion in remaining funds that the government is legally obligated to pay out. Another $16 billion that CBO estimated would be committed before any deal was finalized was also excluded.

The remaining $30 billion is dwarfed by the more than $31 trillion in debt the nation owes.

But it would still help, says Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog group.

“I don't think there's any scenario where one should dismiss $30 billion as not real money,” she said.

Even though much of the money would go to “incredibly important causes,” MacGuineas said, the pandemic is no longer an emergency so lawmakers should find a way to pay for the spending as part of the regular budget process.

One of the largest pots of remaining funds is in a Department of Health and Human Services account to address a wide range of natural and man-made public health threats.

House Democrats say the money is still needed to keep the Strategic National Stockpile full of essential medical supplies, to shore up hospitals and nursing homes, and to develop vaccines and treatments for future variants.  

A registered nurse fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the Staten Island borough of New York, April 8, 2021.

“You don’t stop funding the fire department when there haven’t been any fires,” said Dr. Alonzo Plough, chief science officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the former public health commissioner for Boston and Seattle. “There’s so much more to do that we cannot declare victory in protecting the public health around emergent threats and erode the funding.”

Even if the funds aren’t rescinded, the nation’s public health system would not have enough money, said Dr. Shelley Hearne, a professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re cutting unspent funds that are absolutely needed,” she said. “We have shortchanged public health for over 20 years.”

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Katie Smith Sloan, the president and CEO of LeadingAge, the largest association for nonprofit nursing homes, said it’s wrong “to equate unspent with unneeded.”

Nursing homes continue to struggle to recruit and retain workers while managing rising operating costs, she said, and the millions of dollars Congress approved in COVID-relief payments are critical.

But a spokeswoman for the American Health Care Association, the nation’s largest trade group for nursing homes, said her organization is less concerned about the fate of the remaining provider relief funds and more focused on whether House Republicans and the White House can reach a compromise before the Treasury Department is unable to pay its bills.

“Nursing home residents primarily rely on Medicaid and Medicare, and any disruption of these lifeline reimbursements will result in devastating consequences for our nation’s most vulnerable,” said Rachel Reeves, senior vice president of public affairs.

Nursing home residents line up for the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 15, 2021, in New York City.

In addition to HHS, the Transportation Department also has a large chunk of the remaining COVID funding. A program to protect aviation manufacturing jobs during the pandemic still had $2.3 billion of its original $3 billion left at the start of the year, according to a White House budget document obtained by USA TODAY. The document states the program is largely over.

Another $2.5 billion remained in grants to transit agencies, though the DOT was still processing applications totaling $1.1 billion.

While most of the transit program’s nearly $30.5 billion in relief funding has gone out the door, a spokesperson for the American Public Transportation Association said transit agencies are relying on the remaining dollars “to address ongoing COVID impacts, such as restoration of ridership and farebox revenues.”

Albert Dowdell, wears a protective mask on a bus during the COVID-19 outbreak in Detroit, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Detroit buses will have surgical masks available to riders starting Wednesday, a new precaution the city is taking from the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) ORG XMIT: MIPS102

An Emergency Connectivity Fund was intended to aid remote learning during the pandemic but is still distributing hundreds of millions of dollars to schools and libraries.

Just this week, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District received $4.2 million it’s using to get about 3,000 people a year’s worth of free Wi-Fi from Cox Communications.

“Connectivity is not just a utility,” said Kelvin Watson, the district’s executive director. “It’s a necessity in today’s time.”

Pandemic relief funding the district previously received paid for 2,000 Chromebooks, some of which were distributed to people living in low-income housing and residents going through the library’s literacy program.  

April 21, 2023; Alexandria, VA, USA; Daisy Andonyadis, a third grade teacher at Cora Kelly School, observes her students in the library Friday, April 21, 2023.. Mandatory Credit: Josh Morgan-USA TODAY [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Rental assistance and community development programs would also take a hit, according to CBO.

The head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors said House Republicans’ plan would “unravel cities’ ongoing pandemic recovery efforts.”

“No debt limit increase should undermine the federal commitment to American cities,” said Tom Cochran, the group’s CEO and executive director.

The White House declined to elaborate on Biden’s comment that not all of the unspent funds are needed.

Osterholm, the former member of Biden’s COVID transition team, said some public health experts are hearing it’s all on the table.

While Osterholm is worried that a rescission would hinder efforts to develop new vaccines and treatments, he said he understands the difficult spot the administration is in as it tries to avoid a default that would devastate the economy.

“They’re basically stuck with very unfortunate choices,” he said. “So I’m glad I’m not in their position.”

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