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Peters holds telephone town hall on coronavirus

LANSING — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters answered questions from Michigan residents about the novel coronavirus and aid for those impacted during the first of two telephone town halls Tuesday. 

Peters, D- Mich., spoke about provisions of the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act approved by Congress last week and resources available to workers, families, small businesses and medical professionals.

The $2 trillion bill includes a range of aid to those affected by the crisis, including one-time $1,200 checks to most adults and $500 per child, as well as $350 billion for small businesses.

The bill also includes Peters’ Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Act, which provides federal benefits for up to 39 weeks for people unable to work because of the coronavirus. 

People who qualify for unemployment also get an additional $600 per week in federal benefits through July. 

Peters’ bill also expands benefits to people who would not ordinarily qualify for unemployment, such as people who had only been with their company a short time or the self-employed. 

Peters compared it to the assistance the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides for victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters.

“That hurricane is blowing across the entire country,” he said. “We have to respond accordingly.”

Peters said his other main concern is getting hospitals the equipment they need. The act also includes $150 billion for hospitals and health care providers to compensate them for coronavirus care, aid in getting supplies and fund vaccine research. 

Asked about small business relief, Peters said the act includes $350 billion in loans, as well as debt forgiveness for eight weeks for money used to pay salaries for employees, as well as basic expenses and mortgage payments.

“It’s a very complicated process, and it’s very difficult to restart (the economy) if we’re not doing everything we can to keep the business functioning, keep people on the payroll so that when things start picking up, people can immediately go back to work and we can get back up on our feet,” he said. 

One resident asked if it was time to consider moving to single-payer insurance, pointing to a story showing uninsured people in Florida had treatment bills as high as $35,000. 

Peters said “a broader discussion to make sure everybody in this country has access to quality, affordable health care” needs to be a priority going forward. Measures in the CARES Act also help reduce costs, he said; the bill stipulates that there are no co-pays for COVID-19 tests. 

“It seems to be limited to folks who are showing symptoms, and the doctors believe need to be tested,” he said. “But if that’s the case, the patient’s not going to have to pay anything, That’s going to be completely free regardless of whether they have insurance or not.”

As for treatment, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies will cover it, Peters said. 

People who suddenly become unemployed and lose their insurance have two avenues, Peters said: getting continued Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) insurance through their former employer or signing up for insurance through the Affordable Care Act. 

Whenever a vaccine is approved, that will also be available to the public at no cost, Peters said. 

Congress has approved three coronavirus-related bills so far. Peters anticipates more will be needed. He foresees assistance to educational institutions, particularly if COVID-19 closures extend into the fall.

Another component will be more aid to hospitals. Administrators through Michigan have told Peters of the problems they’ve been having, both from COVID-19 and from the temporary end of elective procedures.

“Some of those hospitals are really worried whether they’re going to survive at the end, and I’ll tell you, I’m really concerned about rural hospitals in particular,” he said. 

Peters also thanked first responders, law enforcement and medical personnel, as well as other essential workers such as grocery workers and truckers. He also noted the efforts by individuals and companies to ramp up production of protective gear. 

Asked about whether the November elections might be delayed, Peters said he had been working with other senators to make vote-by-mail available in every state. Some money in the CARES Act goes towards helping states set up such an option. 

“To delay an election would take legislative action,” he said. “But I’m confident we can conduct these elections in a way that is safe for everybody.”

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