The American health-care system may not know yet the vaccine that will protect the nation from the coronavirus, but Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt says the federal government should have a plan in place for its distribution.
“By Oct. 1, we need to know what that plan is,” the Republican said he told White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Tuesday.
“Even if we’re not going to have a vaccine to distribute until Jan. 1, there is no reason we don’t know what the distribution plan is.”
Blunt made the remarks during a press conference with other Senate Republican leaders as that chamber continues to negotiate the next COVID-19 relief bill.
The talks have numerous complications, not only with the price tag (the House and Senate targets are about $2 trillion apart) but with lawmakers disagreeing on the incentives and protections in the package.
Chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that provides funding for federal health programs, the Missouri senator has helped craft some of the bill’s provisions on testing and continued research into a vaccine.
After a meeting with Meadows and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday, Blunt said the fight against the virus and the fight to save the American economy are intertwined.
“The difference in having a vaccine the middle of January and the middle of May is an incredible difference as we try to work forward,” he said.
“So we’ve got the money there, but we’ve also got language in this bill that requires Health and Human Services to quickly get about the business of determining the priority of treatments, tests and vaccines, determining what’s the best way we can get that vaccine available when it is available.”
Called the HEALS Act, the measure has a number of provisions that Blunt touted, including:
$105 billion for safely reopening schools, with $70 billion for elementary and secondary education, $29 billion for higher education and $5 billion in flexible funding for governors.
More than $15 billion for child-care providers and family services support.
About $25 billion to states for COVID testing, contact tracing and related work, an amount that includes $9 billion unspent from the first stimulus.
$26 billion for vaccine and therapy development, manufacturing and distribution.
$25 billion to help hospitals and health-care providers.
The behind-closed-doors negotiations took place as partisan finger-pointing surged in the public spaces of the U.S. Capitol. One item of contention involves the amount of unemployment assistance available to those who lost jobs because of the pandemic.
Payments in the earlier stimulus round amounted to $600 a week on top of regular jobless benefits. That provision will expire this week without congressional intervention. Republicans want a lesser amount.
“We should not be redistributing money away from the essential workers who have remained at their posts,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday.
“We should not be taxing somebody who has been stocking shelves for months so the government can pay her neighbor more than she makes to sit at home.”
The minority leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said the unemployment payments have played an essential role in shoring up the economy.
“Those enhanced benefits have kept 12 million Americans out of poverty,” he said. “Those enhanced benefits are the one bright spot in this declining economy, that consumer spending is going up now in large part because of pandemic unemployment insurance as well as (the Payroll Protection Program).”