MADISON – Sweeping legislation lawmakers plan to pass in a virtual session this week would give the unemployed more benefits, provide insurance protections for those infected with coronavirus, shield health care providers from liability and allow the state to claim an extra $150 million in federal aid every three months.
Wisconsin is in a minority of states with lawmakers who haven’t yet passed legislation or a resolution related to the coronavirus pandemic, which began to spread here on March 2.
And lawmakers are cutting it close: Democratic Gov. Tony Evers must sign legislation by Friday to qualify the state for an initial $300 million in federal funding to help pay for medical costs through the state’s Medicaid programs.
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Evers told reporters he had not reviewed the latest GOP plan but had reviewed an earlier draft of it.
“There are things we can agree on,” he said.
He highlighted the help for the unemployed and additional federal aid and said he hopes lawmakers will do more later to help small businesses and farmers.
“Hopefully, this will not be a one-shot answer to the crisis here in Wisconsin,” he said in an online media briefing.
Evers first proposed a bill to lawmakers on March 21, but GOP legislative leaders opposed its price tag of at least $706 million. Since then the state has learned it will receive about $2 billion from the federal government to battle the pandemic.
Many of the measures contained in the bill released by Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau expire when the public health emergency order Evers issued in March ends.
Republican legislative leaders have not yet said they would support extending the order, which Evers has requested. That order, which led to a stay-at-home edict, expires in mid-May.
Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester said on April 1 it was too early to decide whether to extend the order and Vos rejected Evers’ request to leave it in place indefinitely — until his administration deems it safe to lift the order.
“If it’s needed, I’ll certainly take a look at it as will our caucus,” Vos said.
The bill would also give the Legislature’s budget committee of 16 lawmakers the authority to transfer $75 million from other funds during the public health emergency. Lawmakers drafting the bill dropped an earlier proposal to give the same committee the power to make spending cuts if a deficit materializes without input from the governor.
The bill includes no appropriations, which likely bars Evers from using his line-item veto authority.
In a statement, Fitzgerald said the bill “extends a lifeline to the recently unemployed and provides the Joint Finance Committee flexibility to respond to future challenges caused by COVID-19.”
“There is no such thing as a perfect piece of legislation, but action is desperately needed right now,” he said.
First-ever virtual floor session
The floor sessions will be the first in the state’s history to be held virtually. The Assembly plans to hold its session Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday.
Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke of Kaukauna said about half of the Assembly’s 99 members would show up for the session in person, with the rest participating remotely. Those who are present will follow social distancing guidelines, he said.
The bill would lift the state’s one-week waiting period to claim unemployment benefits, allowing the jobless to get help right away. Workers who have already been laid off would be able to receive benefits for their first week out of a job going back to March 12.
The federal government is providing an additional $600 a week in unemployment benefits. The Legislature does not have to pass legislation to get that money and the additional benefits should be available in Wisconsin soon.
The bill would allow the state to capture additional federal aid for Medicaid programs like BadgerCare Plus. Medicaid costs are shared by the state and federal governments, and the legislation would allow the state to receive an extra $150 million for each quarter that the coronavirus pandemic persists.
To help keep down people’s insurance medical costs, the legislation would bar insurers from charging people more to get treatment for coronavirus when they go to out-of-network providers. It would also bar insurers from discriminating against people based on whether they have had coronavirus.
All insurers would be required to cover coronavirus testing for free.
The bill also would suspend accountability requirements for public and private schools for the current school year. Students across the state have been at home for about a month and Evers has said he’s not yet considering reopening schools.
The closures have affected students differently depending on where they live.
In Milwaukee, for example, students aren’t receiving any virtual instruction. In Madison, it’s been limited. In Waukesha, students began receiving virtual instruction within days of the district’s closure.
If passed, the bill would not require students to take any state tests — including the ACT — and would bar the state Department of Public Instruction from releasing reports on schools’ progress next year. Student performance also would not be allowed to be used to evaluate teachers for the current school year under the bill.
Under other provisions:
- Vaccinations would be covered under the state’s SeniorCare prescription drug program.
- Pharmacists could extend prescriptions without getting a doctor’s permission in more instances.
- Nurse aides would need fewer hours of instruction to get credentials to work in Wisconsin.
- Lawmakers and other officials would be allowed to mail or email all their constituents about coronavirus at taxpayer expense up to election day. Normally, they are barred from sending mass mailings during campaign season to avoid giving them an advantage over their opponents.
- The Evers administration would be required to establish a pay-for-performance system to help improve the sharing of health information.
- Requirements that the Legislature review changes to health care programs would be relaxed during the coronavirus pandemic. The requirements were put in place in 2019 under lame-duck laws that limited Evers’ power.
- Health care providers and medical suppliers would be given immunity from litigation for their response to coronavirus.
- Coroners and medical examiners could issue cremation permits for those who die of coronavirus without viewing their corpses and issue cremation permits more quickly.
- Coroners and medical examiners could provide cursory reviews of prisoners with coronavirus who die instead of full autopsies, as is now required for everyone who dies in custody.
- Communities would have the ability to waive interest on late property taxes.
- Requirements to renew many medical credentials would be put on hold during the pandemic. Former health care providers and health care providers from other states could more easily get credentials to work in Wisconsin.
- The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. would have to develop a plan by June 30 to support major industries in the state.
- The Legislative Audit Bureau would have to review all programs affected by the legislation.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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