Congress

$3T COVID relief bill includes tech money and restructures health acquisition

US Congress House side Shutterstock photo ID: 156615524 By mdgn editorial use only 

The House of Representatives proposed a COVID-19 relief bill that appropriates more than $3 trillion on economic rescue for individuals and small business, but also focuses on modernizing government technology, provides for expanded telework for the federal workforce and contractors and takes steps to modernize the way medical and public health acquisition and equipment stockpiling is managed.

The House is planning a vote on Friday.

Senate leadership is not looking to move the bill, dubbed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, anytime soon. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters May 12 that he doesn't feel "urgency" to take up the House legislation. At the same press conference, Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) called the bill a "laundry list" and said "it's not going anywhere."

Workforce

The bill provides for federal workers and contractors to telework during the coronavirus pandemic. Eligibility to telework had been an source of confusion during the early days of the virus. The bill also pushes agencies to expand telework usage while disincentivizing any efforts to scale it back.

The proposal stipulates that agencies would be required to allow contractors to telework during the pandemic if the nature of their jobs allowed for it and to give periodic updates to Congress. Contractors who received adverse performance ratings as a result of contract disruptions due to COVID-19 would not be penalized.

David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, lauded the contractor provisions in the bill.

"Across the country, companies are rallying to ensure the availability of critical supplies and services to address the coronavirus crisis," Berteau said. "This package supports this effort, maintains workforce employment, and sustains the industrial base -- including many small businesses -- by keeping companies working and funded."

Federal workers who were no longer able to meet the physical requirements of their jobs due to exposure to COVID-19, and as a result moved to other civil service jobs, would be allowed to remain on their existing retirement plans.

Workers who contracted COVID-19 and whose jobs required extensive contact with the public, such as Transportation Security Officers, would be presumed to have contracted the virus while on the job and would be granted workers compensation accordingly.

The bill also extends a provision of premium pay intended for a wide range of frontline essential workers in the private sector and in state and local government -- from grocery store workers to mass transit operators to first responders -- to feds. Under the bill, federal workers would be eligible for the premium pay, and the Office of Personnel Management would be tasked with developing corresponding regulations.

On oversight, the bill would allow the Chair of the Committee of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency greater flexibility when choosing an official to oversee overall COVID-19 relief funding. It would also require the president to give at least 30 days' notice to Congress before putting an IG official on administrative leave and require congressional justification for any IG seat that is empty for 210 days. IGs would be able to be removed only for just cause, such as neglect, inefficiency, or abuse of authority -- a provision for which independent watchdogs had long advocated.

Acquisition

The bill includes $1 billion for the Technology Modernization Fund administered by the General Services Administration. The revolving fund, authorized by the Modernizing Government Technology Act, gives reimbursable funds to agencies to break out of the trap of maintaining legacy systems and acquire and shift to manage services such as cloud. The HEROES Act specifies that the funds be used to prevent, prepare for and respond to coronavirus.

While the bill includes $875 billion in no-year direct aid to states to replace lost revenues from sales taxes and other consequences of dramatically diminished economic activity, it does not yet include a bipartisan measure designed to give states funds to upgrade legacy technology systems, such as decades-old unemployment insurance systems, that have stymied or delayed millions of Americans seeking to file claims or access social programs. Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.) and a bipartisan group are in the midst of an effort designed to sign on members of both parties to support some measure of aid to state technology upgrades as part of the next round of COVID-19 relief.

The bill also looks to overhaul and systematize the way the federal government acquires and stockpiles medical equipment, including personal protective equipment, to prepare for future health crises and manage the current pandemic.

A new Medical Supplies Response Coordinator would be tasked with serving as a point of contact connecting the national health care system, suppliers and states. The individual holding the job would be required to have "health care training and an understanding of medical supply chain logistics."

The section covering the public health response also introduces new flexibilities into the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile of medical equipment, that is designed to move gear around in advance of expiration dates. A new manufacturing pilot would be designed to keep the stockpile refreshed at all times.

On the technology side, the bill would require the Department of Health and Human Services to produce a reporting portal for hospitals, nursing homes and health care providers to share data on their capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. This covers personnel, beds, ventilators, PPE inventory and other factors.

Election access

The bill includes a section designed to expand absentee voting and vote by mail in large part due to concerns that fears of catching coronavirus at the polls will deter in-person voting. The bill also makes it easier for voters to make requests to vote absentee online.

It would compel each state and election jurisdiction to allow for online voter registration, allow residents to request their absentee ballots through the Internet and create programs to track and confirm their receipts, which would also be made available to residents online.

The bill requires an allowance for early voting (including by mail) for up to 15 days before an election and instructs states to begin scanning and processing such ballots at least 14 days prior. It would also formulate a contingency plan for voting during a natural or public health emergency -- including an infectious disease outbreak. Those plans must cover how equipment are moved around.

The bill also creates a new $20 million grant program to help states conduct Risk Limiting Audits of their voting machines. The Election Assistance Commission would get a $3 million bump to its budget and be charged with sending payments to states to help cover the costs of audit compliance.

About the Authors

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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