Legislators prepare to introduce $650M hospital grant program in House, Senate

Incoming legislation in the House and Senate looks to give back to Pennsylvania’s “health care heroes” with $650 million in grant funding.

From closing down elective surgeries to testing and vaccinating for COVID-19 – and integrating telehealth to a historic number of patients – Pennsylvania hospitals have had their hands full with large-scale changes to their operations.

The Health Care Heroes and Public Health Preparedness Act, legislation soon to be introduced in both houses of the legislature, would use funds from the $7.2 billion in federal funds set aside for Pennsylvania through the American Rescue Plan Act to help hospitals and hospital systems strengthen their workforce, maintain public health infrastructure and more.

“This is designed as a grant program,” said Andy Carter, president of the Hospital and Healthsystem association of Pennsylvania (HAP) during a press conference announcing the legislation. “It’s an opportunity for each member hospital to identify their highest priority needs and show the Commonwealth how they will advance health care in their community.”

A report by the Pennsylvania Healthcare Cost Containment Council published earlier this year found that from January to September of 2020, Pennsylvania hospitals reported $4.9 billion in COVID-19 related expenses and revenue loss.

If the state act is signed into law, hospitals and hospital systems could apply for grant funding for programs such as employee counseling and resiliency initiatives, training programs for care delivery models such as telemedicine, and retention initiatives for high-need clinical staff.

“We know what you did in the last year and a half in retooling your hospitals and treating those who needed treatment from COVID and now helping to vaccinate Pennsylvania,” said State Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland). “We also know that you gave up the more elective surgeries and have suffered just like the rest of our economy has suffered through COVID.”

The act would help address behavioral health capacity issues among both patients and providers, according to Dr. Erika Saunders, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

“The impact on people with mental illness, addiction and intellectual disabilities has been profound due to the disruption in services and community support and the stress on our workers in frontline industries has created the second epidemic of distress and despair,” said Saunders.

The bill are expected to soon be introduced in their respective chambers with Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver, Greene and Washington) as prime sponsor of the Senate bill and Rothman and State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-Philadelphia) as the co-prime sponsors of the House bill.

The legislation is expected to be swept into the state’s larger discussions regarding the state budget, which will close at the end of the state’s fiscal year in June.

Senate package could provide assistance to struggling small businesses

Four Republican Pennsylvania senators plan to introduce a series of bills they say will provide financial and tax relief for the state’s small businesses.

The package, titled Prioritize PA: Small Businesses, includes seven bills designed to reinvigorate Pennsylvania’s small businesses hurt by the pandemic and state mitigation orders.

Senators Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster; Judy Ward, R-Blair, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon; Camera Bartolotta, R-Beaver, Greene, Washington; and Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, announced the package during a press conference in Lititz on Monday.

Prioritize PA includes a five-bill package introduced by Aument. It includes no-interest loans for struggling small businesses, a tax credit program and a temporary waiver of fees for various state licensing.

The package also includes a bill that would allow businesses to deduct property taxes from the state’s Corporate Net Income or Personal Income Tax liability.

The final bill in the package is a three-year option to offset earnings from prior years or future years against current year losses and get refunds for prior years or cut future tax bills.

The bills are an attempt to provide both immediate and long-term relief to small businesses harmed by the Wolf Administration’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, according to Aument.

“As we celebrate moving toward herd immunity, reopening our economy, and returning to a sense of normalcy again, we must not forget our small businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, that have suffered immensely throughout this pandemic,” he said.

Two other bills, already introduced to their respective committees, are also part of Prioritize PA.

Senate Bill 368, sponsored by Bartolotta and Ward, would make several targeted changes to Pennsylvania’s Tax Code. The changes would allow small businesses to take a net loss against other sources of income unrelated to their business’ income, allow small businesses paying their taxes through personal income to carry their losses forward and allow businesses to carry back losses to previous tax years.

For a business to carry back their losses, they would need to have suffered net operating losses in 2018 or 2019 and were profitable in any of the five years prior to the loss. If the businesses first loss since 2017 was because of the pandemic, they will be able to request a refund against a previous profitable tax year.

“Many small businesses that have been profitable for years are now seeing losses that are entirely due to COVID-19. Small shops and mom-and-pop operations do not have massive amounts of savings; they are holding on by a thread,” Ward said. “We cannot allow these families to lose everything they have worked so hard to build.”

Senate Bill 32 is also part of the package and is sponsored by Phillips-Hill. If it was passed into law, it would create an Independent Office of the Repealer to eliminate outdated regulations. The bill would reverse the trend of growing regulations and the negative impact they have on the economy, according to Phillips-Hill

“Regulations are a self-made problem that are, in part, the result of choices made by the legislative branch of government,” she said. “As a result, state agencies develop rules and regulations that place new burdens on small businesses.”

The package is already seeing support from Pennsylvania’s small business community. On Monday, the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses released a statement on the package, with Greg Biryla, NFIB’s senior state director, noting that it offers both immediate relief and structural reforms.

“The success of our broader recovery and local economies across Pennsylvania depends upon the success and prosperity of our small businesses,” said Biryla. “A year since the pandemic was first declared, small businesses continue to navigate an unprecedented, unpredictable and unforgiving landscape. The Prioritize PA: Small Businesses legislative initiative provides immediate relief for industries hit hardest, but also advances structural reforms to ease regulatory costs and increase new opportunities for small businesses across the Keystone State.”

Wolf signs bill allowing National Guard to assist in vaccine efforts

The Pennsylvania National Guard (PANG) will be assisting with the state’s vaccination efforts following Governor Tom Wolf’s signing of House Bill 326.

Late last month, the House and Senate signed a bill that would permit the National Guard to work with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to develop plans to establish and operate regional sites for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

Wolf announced on Wednesday that he signed the bill, which would also allow the National Guard to help distribute pharmaceuticals and medical equipment and supplies.

“This bill will support the National Guard and other state agencies in the planning process for community vaccination clinics once supply of COVID-19 vaccines increases,” Wolf said. “This service will help further expedite getting vaccines to Pennsylvanians across the state.”

Through the bill, the Wolf Administration will be required to report on its plans to incorporate the National Guard into its overall vaccination strategy.

Rep. Timothy O’Neal, R-Washington County, introduced the legislation in January. In his memorandum to house members, O’Neal wrote that the National Guard has already conducted tests, sanitized facilities, provided logistical support and delivered meals and PPE during the pandemic.

“The PANG has both the infrastructure, human capital, and logistics to make sure that the vaccine is distributed to all in a timely fashion and efficiently,” O’Neal wrote. “Several other states and territories have already started to utilize their National Guard.”

$912 million COVID-19 relief bill that would help renters and restaurants heads to Gov. Wolf’s desk

A COVID-19 relief bill that would provide money for rental assistance and the struggling hospitality industry, among others, was approved by the state House and Senate and now awaits Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature.

The $912 million package is made up mostly of funds given to the state through Congress’ COVID Relief Bill passed in December and provides funds to restaurants, schools, employers, tenants and landlords.

Wolf intends to sign the bill, according to Lyndsay Kensinger, press secretary for the office of the governor.

The Senate approved the bill late last month, and a modified version of that bill was approved by the House today. The amended measure was quickly passed this afternoon by the Senate on a 48-0 vote.

The bill allocates $569.8 million for rental and utility assistance, $197 million for education programs and $145 million for the state’s hospitality industry.

Funding for the Rental and Utility Assistance program would be provided by federal Coronavirus stimulus money and would be divided up to counties by population size.

One of the largest changes the bill was an amendment in the House ensuring that forgivable loans given to Pennsylvania businesses through the federal Paycheck Protection Program will not be taxed by the state.

Sen. Patrick Browne, R-Lehigh, thanked the House for the change and expressed hope the bill will be approved by the Governor in its entirety.

“Without the changes in this bill that we are hopeful the governor will accept, there would have been a problem with how our tax code treated grants out of the very important paycheck protection program,” Browne said. “We would be taxing those forgivable loans and including money from those loans in our treasury.”

Gov. Wolf proposes $145 million fund transfer for business aid

Pennsylvania businesses whose operations and revenue were adversely affected by the pandemic could have access to $145 million in grant funding, pending approval from the state legislature.

Gov. Tom Wolf announced on Wednesday that he is looking to transfer $145 million in funds from the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund at the state Insurance Department to be used in grants for businesses.

“Business owners and employees have worked hard to protect their customers and their communities during this pandemic, and I thank all of those who have prioritized health and safety despite the hardship of the past several months,” Wolf said. “Our business owners and workers have been forced to make sacrifices because of COVID-19 and they need and deserve our support.

Before the funds can be distributed to businesses through grants, the fund transfer into the state’s general fund will need legislative authorization, the Wolf Administration wrote in a press release.

Since March, the state has provided over $525 million in relief to businesses and non-profits along with federal support through programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan.

Earlier this month, Wolf announced that the state would be shutting down indoor dining and alcohol sales from Dec. 12 to Jan. 4.

The move was lampooned by businesses, especially restaurant owners, who said that there was not enough warning for the closures and there was no safety net offered to businesses as there was in March thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program and additional unemployment compensation.

New federal stimulus package welcomed, lawmakers point out issues

State lawmakers praised the coming of the $900 billion federal stimulus package approved by the Senate and Congress this week but noted that much more must be done before the nation recovers from its public health and economic crisis.

The fourth major spending legislation targeting Americans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is awaiting President Trump’s signature after being approved by both the House and Senate on early Monday morning.

The legislation, which includes a new round of $600 stimulus checks, a $300 extension to unemployment benefits and a second round of access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), was long overdue, Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The emergency relief funds authorized under the CARES Act were crucial to helping our nation survive the spring surge of COVID-19, but those funds expired while desperate need remained,” said Wolf. “Americans continue to struggle due to the economic consequences of this global pandemic.”

The second round of forgivable PPP loans will provide 2.5 times the monthly payroll costs for businesses from a $284 billion federal pool. Businesses will also be able to deduct expenses paid with PPP loans.

Tom Bené, president & CEO of the Harrisburg-based National Restaurant Association, said that Congress’ action will keep tens of thousands of restaurants from closing for good.
“A second round of PPP, combined with unique enhancements for the restaurant sector, will provide critical access to capital,” said Bené. Restaurant operators and their employees are dedicated to serving their communities, and today’s bipartisan agreement will give them the opportunity to do that through the holidays.”

Both U.S Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) issued statements noting that they were relieved to see additional aid released to Pennsylvania, but saw flaws in the legislation.

“While there is much in this bill that I disagree with, including wasteful government spending and misguided policies that will dampen the recovery, the good it does outweighs the bad,” said Toomey.

He added that he was glad to see Congress extend unemployment eligibility for the self-employed and gig workers, reauthorize PPP for small businesses, pick up the cost of distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine and provide assistance for education.

Casey wrote in a statement that the relief bill does not include critically-needed money for state and local governments to prevent service cuts and layoffs for firefighters, law enforcement and local health departments.

“It also lacks meaningful policies and investments to protect nursing home residents and workers and to allow seniors and people with disabilities to receive needed care at home,” he said.

Sen. Toomey: reopening after COVID-19 “off to a very impressive start”

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey told a room of midstate business leaders that he is cautiously optimistic about the country’s reopening, that he expects a fifth COVID-19 relief bill to pass through the U.S. Senate in the coming weeks and that the bill could feature a provision on liability protection.

“The data so far suggest that the recession was not as deep as we thought it would be and the recovery has gone off to a very impressive start in terms of businesses reopening and people getting back to work,” Toomey, R-Pa. said during a forum at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in Harrisburg.

During the forum, Toomey outlined what he and the Senate hoped to accomplish with the country’s four COVID-19 relief bills, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.


Donna Partin, a franchisee of residential cleaning service company Merry Maids, asked Toomey what he thought of continuing the CARES Act’s Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation provision, which adds an additional $600 per week on top of regular benefits to all unemployment compensation recipients.

Partin, who owns franchises in Mechanicsburg, York, Reading and Lancaster, said while her business has managed to grow since she had to lay off many of her employees during the pandemic, she has found it difficult to find employees, which she accredited to the large increases in unemployment compensation.

Toomey said the provision was a controversial issue on the Senate floor.

“In my view, there is a good reason why throughout the entire history of unemployment insurance programs, we never set the total unemployment compensation at a rate higher than what a person can make,” he said. “What a terrible message for the government to say you are worth more doing nothing than going to work.”

Toomey expects a battle in the Senate as the $600 add-on nears its July 31 expiration date. The Senator said he will refuse to support an extension to the policy and hopes it stays out of the next bill.

Liability protection for businesses was also brought up during the forum. Gene Barr, the chamber’s president and CEO, asked Toomey what his stance was on the Senate voting to increase liability protections amidst the fears of businesses receiving gratuitous lawsuits from customers claiming to have contacted COVID-19 in their facilities.

“We need liability protection and we have to be careful about how we do it and what criteria an employer must meet to have the protection,” Toomey said, adding that he expects liability protection to be featured in the next COVID-19 relief bill.

In his closing remarks, Toomey highlighted the importance of data during the pandemic and the improvements in treating the virus that have occurred since the country first locked down.

The Senator said the country will need to continue to continue to contend with the virus, but will need to do so without once again putting healthy people into quarantine and locking down the economy.

“Sixty eight percent of all of our fatalities in Pennsylvania occurred in nursing homes so clearly we didn’t do as good of a job in hindsight as we would have wished inside of our nursing homes,” he said. “Those people we have to make sure we protect, but healthy and younger people, as long as they take the necessary precautions, can get back to living life.”

Bill that provides $500M in COVID relief for senior care sent to Gov. Wolf

A bill that would use $500 million in federal COVID-19 relief to help nursing homes, assisted living communities and personal care homes combat the spread of the virus is on Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk awaiting his signature.

House Bill 2510 was approved by both the House and Senate Thursday after being introduced on May 6 by Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

If signed into law by Wolf, the bill would designate at least one health system in six regions to receive the funds to administer or manage personnel, protocols, testing and expenditures to ensure the elder-care facilities can protect their residents.

The funding is planned to be lifted from Pennsylvania’s $3.9 billion in COVID-19 funding from the federal government.

Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine reported on Thursday that there were 17,721 cases of COVID-19 in nursing and personal care homes across the state. The number includes residents and staff. Of the state’s 5,373 COVID-related deaths, 3,501 occurred among residents of nursing or personal care facilities.

Nearly $300 million will go directly to support long-term care providers.

“Long-term care has become the epicenter of this epidemic in Pennsylvania, and facilities across the state have fought to obtain testing, personal protective equipment and staffing resources, often without the means to cover rising costs and expenses,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based Pennsylvania Health Care Association.

Shamberg applauded the Pennsylvania General Assembly for approving the bill, noting that the bill was a “clear message of support to those on the front lines.”

Nurse practitioners ask Wolf to relax regulations so they can return to work

Nurse practitioners finding themselves unemployed during the COVID-19 pandemic could have to wait months to wade through state regulations necessary to get back to work.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Nurse Practitioners asked Gov. Tom Wolf on Friday to temporarily suspend a series of regulations for nurse practitioners that requires them to seek a collaborative agreement with a physician before they can provide care.

The regulations have been a point of contention in the health care industry for years and a bill is currently awaiting approval in the state House that would allow practitioners to find employment without first finding physicians to partner with.

The coalition, on behalf of its members, asked the state to suspend the regulations in the wake of COVID-19, to allow any nurse practitioner currently waiting on collaborative agreements to return to work immediately.

Under current regulations, nurse practitioners must find a physician, negotiate an agreement and submit an application to the state, which can take months.

“We have one mission: to care for patients during this COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Adele Caruso, president of the coalition. “Yet there are nurse practitioners today in Pennsylvania who are unable to work due to outdated regulations.”

Wolf recently pulled back on the regulations by allowing nurse practitioners licensed in one focus area to practice in other areas during the pandemic. The administration also lowered the number of agreements needed from two physicians to one.

Caruso noted that five other states have suspended their collaborative agreement rules, including New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, Louisiana and Wisconsin, and asked Wolf to do the same.

“We urge Governor Wolf to go one step further, similar to the other Governors, to waive the restrictive barriers and put our nurse practitioners to work immediately,” she said.


Stimulus bill could bring much needed help to midstate businesses

Midstate businesses could have a lot to gain from the Senate’s proposed $2 trillion stimulus bill if it becomes a law in the coming weeks.

Businesses across the country are waiting for the United States Senate to vote on a bill that would provide billions of dollars to both small and large operations— an opportunity that David Black, CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC, said could be a huge step to cover losses for area businesses impacted by statewide closures.

The spread of coronavirus and Gov. Tom Wolf’s closure of businesses deemed non-essential has already dealt a blow to area businesses, including the region’s large tourism industry, he said.

“Cash flow has stopped—it’s just not going,” said Black, noting that the Senate’s bill could be the help businesses need. “The purpose of the business loan component of this is to try and soften that blow, perhaps replace it with a loan but we haven’t seen the language.”

The stimulus is an unprecedented amount of money but it will be difficult to understand how many businesses will receive funds through the bill until the government begins the process, said Black.

Currently the plan is to provide $350 billion in loans for small businesses with less than 500 employees and $500 billion in loans for distressed companies, among other efforts including $1,200 in checks sent to eligible American households.

The Small Business Administration (SBA) recently announced that it would be offering disaster loans to small businesses throughout the country.

Black warned that the process to receive the SBA’s loans online has proven difficult with so many companies trying to use the online portal at once and that when applications open for the $2 trillion stimulus, there may be long waiting times.

“You just have to stick with it, you might have to do it in the middle of the night,” he said. “We know the electronic portals will be slow and backed up. It’s just a matter of timing.”

The Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. supports member businesses and offers economic and businesses development to companies in the Harrisburg and Hershey regions.

Gov. Tom Wolf proposes boosting minimum wage to $12 by July

Too many workers are still struggling to get by because Pennsylvania hasn’t raised the minimum wage in more than a decade. The cost of living goes up and Pennsylvanians wait as 29 other states, including all of our neighbors, raised the minimum wage for their workers.”

Gov. Tom Wolf called for Pennsylvania to raise its minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 by the beginning of July.

Wolf has proposed plans to raise the state’s minimum wage, which was last raised in 2009, every year since he took office in 2015. Under his newest plan, the state would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour on July 1, 2020 and raise that minimum by 50 cents every year until reaching $15 an hour in 2026.

“There’s momentum to finally raise the wage, but momentum in the Capitol doesn’t put food on the table in workers’ homes,” Gov. Wolf said. “Too many workers are still struggling to get by because Pennsylvania hasn’t raised the minimum wage in more than a decade. The cost of living goes up and Pennsylvanians wait as 29 other states, including all of our neighbors, raised the minimum wage for their workers.”

The minimum wage is $10.10 in Maryland, $10 in New Jersey, $8.75 in West Virginia, $8.55 in Ohio.

The increase to $12 in Pennsylvania would affect more than a million Pennsylvanians, and after reaching $15 those workers will generate an additional $300 million in state tax revenue, Wolf said. In addition, the administration says it would take nearly 93,000 adults off Medicaid.

“I’m grateful that Governor Wolf has once again included a living wage for Pennsylvanians as a budget priority,” said Rep. Patty Kim, D-Harrisburg. “We can’t sit back for another year and watch other states lead on minimum wage. We have lagged behind for too long while workers are working longer and bringing home less.”

Opponents of the increase question how a $4.75 jump in the minimum wage would affect small businesses with thin margins. That raise in the minimum wage could be even more harmful to the state’s local restaurants if the tipped credit system is eliminated as the governor has previously proposed, said Alex Halper, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

“If the goal for lawmakers is to assist low income Pennsylvanians raising families, there are more targeted and strategic policies that would drive support to those families without triggering a negative impact on family businesses,” Halper said.

Federal safety regulators blasted for letting companies call the shots in report

BOB strollers, pictured, were recalled multiple times due to falling hazards, but Congressional overseers say the Consumer Product Safety Commission didn’t provide enough oversight throughout the recall process PHOTO/U.S. CONSUMER PRODUCT SAFETY COMMISSION

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was excoriated by overseers in the Senate for allegedly failing to adequately protect U.S. consumers from unsafe and defective products.

The BOB jogging stroller, the Fisher-Price Rock ‘n’ Roll Play inclined infant sleeper and several residential elevators have each been recalled in the last decade after causing injury and death during, but Democratic minority members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation say the commission put business interests before consumer safety when conducting recalls.

The commission’s alleged lapses in oversight are detailed in a recent report released by minority members on the committee, illustrating instances when the commission, under the leadership of then-Acting Chair Ann Marie Buerkle, relaxed regulations intended to protect consumers.

“An examination of documents associated with both products by Senate Commerce Committee staff shows, however, that the ‘recalls’ agreed to by the commission function less as true remedies for consumers, and more as incentive programs to bring more business to the companies involved in the recalls,” the report’s executive summary says. “Instead of offering refunds for many consumers with defective BOB strollers, the CPSC instead settled for allowing the company to offer coupons towards the purchase of additional products.”

The report alleges the commission’s failures were due to “a pattern of inappropriate deference to industry that has characterized CPSC leadership in recent years,” rather than a lack of legal authority.

Instead of issuing a proper recall and refunds for customers, the commission issued coupons from the company as part of “incentive programs to bring more business to the companies involved in the recalls,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, a ranking member of the committee.

“Consumers and their families should have confidence in the products they buy,” Cantwell said. “Industry and the (commission) need to take action to ensure that consumers aren’t buying dangerous or defective products and that those who do receive a real remedy.”