House Bill Promises Free Coronavirus Treatment, Pension Aid

By Emily Brill
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Law360 (May 12, 2020, 10:22 PM EDT) -- House Democrats' $3 trillion proposal for the next coronavirus relief package, released Tuesday, promises free coronavirus treatment, aid to troubled pension plans and more benefits assistance to out-of-work Americans, including help with health insurance payments and access to enhanced unemployment benefits until January.

The so-called HEROES Act, set for a vote in the House on Friday, also includes a controversial proposal to incorporate elements of 401(k) plans into union pension plans, much to unions' and pension activists' chagrin.

Lawmakers do not expect the HEROES Act — short for the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act — to pass in its current form; Tuesday's proposal simply kick-starts negotiations by identifying Democrats' priorities for the latest relief package, Capitol Hill veterans told Law360 on Tuesday.

Below, Law360 summarizes the proposal's key benefit-related provisions.

Free Coronavirus Treatment

The first of the bill's two blockbuster proposals guarantees free coronavirus treatment to virtually all Americans.

Both insured and uninsured Americans would have access to free treatment, the bill says, though it makes no mention of who would bear the cost of hospital stays.

The proposal calls for "no cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment" for people who get health insurance through their jobs, the Affordable Care Act marketplace, Medicaid, Medicare, the military's health care program, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or the insurance program for federal government employees.

Uninsured people who receive treatment through a Medicaid eligibility pathway established by the first two coronavirus relief packages are also guaranteed free treatment, according to the bill.

The bill also specifies that Medicaid recipients could receive a coronavirus vaccine for free once one is developed, according to a bill summary.

Help For Union Pension Plans

The bill's second blockbuster proposal grants financially struggling union pension plans some of the relief for which activists have been begging Congress for years.

That relief may come at a cost, though, if the final relief package includes the text of the GROW Act, which activists say could weaken retirement security by making these plans more like 401(k)s.

Chief among the bill's highlights for activists is a commitment to fund struggling plans enough to keep them "solvent and well-funded" for at least 30 years.

That funding would come through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal government's insurance program for pension plans. The bill would make it easier for PBGC to take over the most financially hurting of those plans, called multiemployer plans, which serve union members.

If Congress doesn't intervene to help these plans by passing the HEROES Act or a similar measure, PBGC has long said that the retirement security of more than 1 million mostly blue-collar American union members could be severely damaged by 2026.

Under the HEROES Act, the plans receiving PBGC's help could not cut participants' pensions, and any previous cuts would be reversed.

Unions and pension activists had pushed for these provisions to land in the next coronavirus relief package. On Tuesday, they celebrated the HEROES Act's inclusion of these proposals, but they blasted the add-on of the GROW Act.

"We are thrilled that the next COVID relief bill protects the pensions of our nation's true heroes — the truck drivers delivering supplies, the health care workers at the front lines, the ironworkers helping to build hospitals — by ensuring that their multiemployer pension plans are saved and workers' and retirees' benefits will be fully protected," said Karen Friedman and Karen Ferguson, the leaders of the nonprofit Pension Rights Center, in an emailed statement to Law360.

"However, we oppose the GROW Act, because it's misguided legislation that creates new inferior pension plan designs that will undermine the multiemployer system," they continued.

The Teamsters echoed those sentiments in a statement released Tuesday.

Aid For Other Retirement Plans

Union plans aren't the only type of pension plan that may receive some relief under the HEROES Act.

The bill gives single-employer pension plans a significantly longer deadline for making up funding shortfalls.

Financially struggling single-employer plans currently have seven years to make up these shortfalls. The bill would extend that timeline to 15 years.

"The proposed funding relief for single-employer plans is very welcome given the significant impact volatility can have on defined benefit plan portfolios and the phase-out of existing funding relief currently scheduled to happen in the next few years," said David Levine, a Washington, D.C.-based principal at Groom Law Group.

The bill also extends retirement plan funding deadlines for community newspapers, making permanent a temporary deadline extension authorized by last year's SECURE Act.

More Benefits Access

The HEROES Act aims to give workers easier and broader access to benefits such as health insurance and unemployment.

It includes a long-circulating Democratic proposal to pay for laid-off workers to stay on their employers' health insurance plans until January 2021.

The bill would create a special enrollment period in Affordable Care Act health plans for uninsured people.

It would make the enhanced unemployment benefits authorized by previous coronavirus bills — which pay workers an extra $600 per week and make benefits available to people who usually aren't covered, like independent contractors — available until Jan. 31, 2021.

It would extend access to emergency family and medical leave benefits from Dec. 31, 2020, to Dec. 31, 2021.

And it would make workers' compensation easier to access for coronavirus-stricken federal maritime employees by establishing a legal presumption that the workers caught coronavirus on the job.

The bill also gives veterans a longer time to enroll in the VA's health plan and expands volunteer firefighters' and emergency medical technicians' access to "nominal recruitment and retention incentives," letting them collect up to $50 per month without including it as taxable income.

The bill would also give essential workers access to hazard pay.

--Additional reporting by Andrew Kragie. Editing by Haylee Pearl.

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