Pandemic is Over Act

Floor Speech

Date: Jan. 31, 2023
Location: Washington, DC

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong opposition to H.R. 382, which would abruptly and irresponsibly end the COVID-19 public health emergency virtually overnight. It would require this action immediately without providing patients, hospitals, providers, and States sufficient notice to safely unwind numerous authorities, programs, and flexibilities that have been essential to protecting Americans throughout the pandemic.

Last night, the Biden administration announced that the COVID-19 public health emergency is planned to be ended on May 11, 2023. This timeline provides healthcare providers and patients with the certainty and predictability needed to responsibly wind down the COVID-19 response programs.

As a result of these successful programs, as well as the historic investments made by Congress, millions of Americans have received free vaccines and tests, safe access to their doctors through telehealth appointments, and continuous healthcare coverage through programs such as Medicaid and CHIP.

Unfortunately, Republicans are needlessly rushing forward today with a reckless plan that would jeopardize the health of millions of Americans by immediately ceasing these important response programs without advanced preparations.

Mr. Speaker, a pandemic of this magnitude cannot be unwound overnight. We cannot flip a switch and make COVID-19 end with the snap of a finger. If H.R. 382 becomes law, it would have disastrous consequences. It would disrupt insurance coverage for millions of vulnerable Americans by allowing States to immediately start kicking vulnerable Americans off their healthcare coverage without any protections. This is deeply irresponsible and dangerous.

Americans would also immediately begin paying out of pocket for the COVID-19 testing, and hospitals would see an immediate payment cut of 20 percent for Medicare patients with COVID-19. In addition, important waivers and flexibilities, including certain telemedicine flexibilities that providers and patients have relied on for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, would be terminated immediately, as well.

This legislation would also result in the elimination of vital tools for tracking COVID-19 outbreaks in nursing homes and other residential facilities.

It also impacts our veterans, ending VA clinicians' ability to prescribe controlled substances via telehealth. This would severely impact many veterans' access to medications that they need to manage chronic pain, complex mental health conditions, and substance use disorder. The legislation also threatens the progress the VA has made in ending veterans' homelessness.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, it would abruptly end flexibilities for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that would impact many Americans struggling to put food on their tables, particularly for those having trouble finding work and low-income college students.

The Republicans began their House majority with chaos and confusion earlier this month, and this bill continues that chaos and confusion, but this time it will hurt millions of Americans directly, and that is simply not right.

Responsibly transitioning to the post-emergency future requires careful planning and coordination with public health officials and policymakers. I applaud the Biden administration for properly guiding the Nation to a safe transition as we unwind these programs without endangering access to care and treatment for Americans.

Unfortunately, Republicans are rushing to recklessly and dangerously eliminate all these protections immediately and without warning. I just think it is the height of irresponsibility. For that reason, I strongly urge my colleagues to oppose this bill.


Mr. PALLONE. Jackson Lee).

Ms. JACKSON LEE. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to try and speak something called commonsense speak, and that is for my colleagues to understand that Americans reject confusion and chaos.

According to The New York Times, ``An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the healthcare system--for States, for hospitals and doctors' offices, and, most importantly, for the tens of millions of Americans,'' as evidenced.

This is on the data from the White House, which by the way, under President Joe Biden, crafted a White House COVID task force that began to calm the uncalm waters that we suffered in the last administration.

Does anyone remember, ``maybe we should drink disinfectant'' in the midst of COVID-19?

Well, let me tell you, in Houston, Texas, we remember it. We also know that 6,812,798 persons died around the world from COVID; 1.1 million died in the United States.

It was only after an overwhelming effort by the Biden administration that we began to see the clock move on individuals willing to get their first, second, and third shots; their booster shots. That is why we are living, because we were vaccinated, because we overcame the stigma and the wrongheaded information that was scaring people about vaccines.

We didn't lose 1 million people on vaccines. We lost 1 million people due to not having that vaccination timely. I am struck by this legislation. The pandemic is not over.

Mr. Speaker, 500 people a day die, right now as I am standing here, from COVID. That is a reasonable amount. I know there are other infectious diseases, but doesn't it make sense that if we can have a vaccine and a protocol that allows people, our children, and those with preexisting conditions to live that we want them to do so?

The Biden administration has announced that they intend to reduce this national emergency declaration in May. It will allow our health facilities to get themselves organized for the possible onslaught. It will also deprive impoverished persons from the ability to get free vaccinations, including possibly flu shots, like we are doing in Houston, Texas.

I remember over 70 testing sites that I put in my district with healthcare providers week after week after week so that people could be tested and so we could bring down COVID in Houston, Texas.

I remember vaccination sites where people stood in line, a thousand at a time, to get vaccinated for free. Are we jumping for joy to condemn and now undermine the emergency pandemic that was utilized?

Ms. JACKSON LEE. All I can say is that health professionals by and large in hospitals, clinics, doctors' offices will say no. They need their patients healthy. As many people that can get vaccinated with information should get vaccinated and, of course, guided by your healthcare provider.

I don't think it makes any good sense to be able to talk about how you never got tested, how you never got vaccinated. That is all well and good. I applaud an individual who is able to survive not getting tested, not getting vaccinated, but I know of so many of my close friends who died because there was not a vaccination, there was not good healthcare. They came to the end stages of COVID and COVID killed them.

So I don't make a mockery of the hard work of President Biden. I truly believe that his time frame--I might think it is a little too quick, but I adhere to the President's time frame of May 2023. Let us organize so that we can save lives.

Ms. JACKSON LEE. Mr. Speaker, at any moment we can have a surge of COVID-19. We saw that at the beginning of the convergence of the flu, which was high this year, and COVID.

So I don't celebrate this legislation. I don't take angst or anger with the individual who thinks this is the right way, but I know that I am on the right side. I am on the dominant side of truth that 6 million-plus died, 1.1 million died here in the United States and 500 are dying every day.

This is not a time to precipitously end the emergency declaration. We should also make sure that we are not creating chaos and confusion.

Mr. Speaker, I again emphasize that we need not have chaos and confusion. Unfortunately, I see no purpose in this bill and will vote against it.

Mr. Speaker, I rise in strong opposition to H.R. 382--the Pandemic is Over Act, which would terminate the COVID-19 public health emergency that was declared on January 31, 2020, on the date of the bill's enactment.

Yesterday President Biden announced that the Public Health Emergency would officially end on May 11, 2023.

The purpose of doing this would be to allow hospitals, health care workers, and health officials the ability to manage changes that will come with ending the public health emergency declaration.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, a Public Health Emergency declaration occurs when the Secretary of HHS determines that a disease or disorder presents a public health emergency (PHE) or that a public health emergency exists.

Secretary Becerra and the Biden administration have repeatedly said that the decision to terminate the public health emergency would be based on the best available data and science.

Through mass testing and vaccination campaigns, the public health emergency declaration has helped the American public contain the COVID virus, while also keeping the cost low for those seeking treatment.

The public health emergency has required that group health plans and insurers provide patients with COVID vaccines, testing, and treatment; expanded telehealth services, and extended health coverage for Medicaid beneficiaries.

Abruptly ending these pandemic declarations without a transition period would be extremely irresponsible because it would create uncertainty in health care systems; it would end Medicaid programs that have operated under special rules, telehealth would be impacted, and group health insurance plans could potentially change frequency of testing, vaccination, and treatment for patients.

These programs have been incredibly helpful at slowing the spread of COVID, so we must be thoughtful and practical about how we dissolve the public health emergency, which is why we need a transition period as proposed by the President just yesterday.

We must provide stakeholders with time to adjust to the changes that will come from ending the public health emergency.

I urge my colleagues to join me in opposition to legislation that would end the pandemic far too early and would upend some of the flexibilities that we all have benefited from since the start of the pandemic.

Ms. JACKSON LEE. Mr. Speaker, I include in the Record a New York Times article, ``U.S. Plans to End Public Health Emergency for COVID in May.'' [From the New York Times, Jan. 30, 2023]

U.S. Plans To End Public Health Emergency for Covid in May

The end of the emergency, planned for May 11, will bring about a complex set of policy changes and signals a new chapter in the government's pandemic response.

Washington--The Biden administration plans to let the coronavirus public health emergency expire in May, the White House said on Monday, a sign that federal officials believe the pandemic has moved into a new, less dire phase.

The move carries both symbolic weight and real-world consequences. Millions of Americans have received free Covid tests, treatments and vaccines during the pandemic, and not all of that will continue to be free once the emergency is over. The White House wants to keep the emergency in place for several more months so hospitals, health care providers and health officials can prepare for a host of changes when it ends, officials said.

An average of more than 500 people in the United States are still dying from Covid-19 each day, about twice the number of deaths per day during a bad flu season. But at the three-year mark, the coronavirus is no longer upending everyday life to the extent it once did, partly because much of the population has at least some protection against the virus from vaccinations and prior infections.

Still, the White House said on Monday that the nation needed an orderly transition out of the public health emergency. The administration said it also intended to allow a separate declaration of a national emergency to expire on the same day, May 11.

``An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system--for states, for hospitals and doctors' offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,'' the White House said in a statement.

The announcement came on the eve of a scheduled vote in the House on a bill that would immediately end the public health emergency. The bill, called the Pandemic Is Over Act, is one of several pandemic-related measures that the Republican- controlled chamber is scheduled to consider this week. The White House issued its statement as the administration's response to that bill and another measure that would end the national emergency.

The back and forth signaled what is likely to be a protracted political battle between House Republicans and the White House over its handling of the pandemic. Republican lawmakers hope to put the Biden administration on the defensive, claiming it spent extravagantly in the name of battling the coronavirus.

``Rather than waiting until May 11, the Biden administration should Join us now in immediately ending this declaration,'' Representative Steve Scalise, Republican of Louisiana and the majority leader, said in a statement. ``The days of the Biden administration being able to hide behind Covid to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on their unrelated, radical agenda are over.''

The White House argues that it is only because of federal Covid policies mandating free tests, treatments and vaccines that the pandemic is now under better control. Covid was the third-leading cause of death from 2020 through mid-2022; now it is no longer among the top five killers, federal officials said.

The public health emergency was first declared by the Trump administration in January 2020, and it has been renewed every 90 days since then. The Biden administration had pledged to alert states 60 days before ending it. The emergency was last renewed earlier in January, and many state health officials expected it would be allowed to expire in mid-April.

Ending the emergency will prompt complex changes in the cost of Covid tests and treatments that Americans are accustomed to getting for free. Any charges they face will vary depending on whether they have private insurance, Medicare coverage, Medicaid coverage or no health insurance. What state they live in could also be a factor.

Still, the consequences may not be quite as dramatic as public health experts once feared. Medicaid enrollment expanded greatly during the pandemic because low-income Americans were kept in the program for as long as the public health emergency was active.

But a congressional spending package enacted in December effectively broke that link, instead setting an April deadline when states will begin losing additional funding for Medicaid coverage. State officials are likely to gradually remove Americans from Medicaid rolls this year beginning then. That transition avoids a more sudden removal of millions of poor Americans from their health coverage.

By reconfiguring that expensive policy, Congress was able to use the projected savings to pay for expanded Medicaid benefits for children, postpartum mothers and residents of U.S. territories.

The December legislation also extended coverage for telehealth visits for Medicare recipients through 2024. Telemedicine proved a lifeline for many during the pandemic, and that coverage would have ended when the emergency was lifted.

Still, other services might prove more costly to Americans, particularly those with no insurance. People with private health insurance or Medicare coverage have been eligible for eight free coronavirus tests each month. Insurers were required to cover tests, even if they were administered by providers that were not part of their networks. Once the emergency ends, some Americans will end up paying out of pocket for those tests.

And while vaccines will continue to be covered for people with private insurance or Medicare or Medicaid coverage, the end of the emergency will mean that some Americans may have to pay out of pocket for Covid treatments, such as Paxlovid, an antiviral pill. Hospitals will also no longer receive higher Medicare payment rates for treating Covid patients.

Jennifer Kates, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said the emergency declaration had provided an important reprieve from the American health care system's typically fractured way of covering the costs of care, giving more people access to services that might otherwise not have been covered by insurance.

The White House's decision, she added, could send the wrong message about how relaxed Americans should be about the virus.

``To the extent that it might let people let their guard down from one day to the next, that could raise some challenges,'' she said.

Mr. Speaker, I commend Ms. Sheila Jackson Lee, my colleague, for everything that she just said.

I remember so many times during the first year of the COVID pandemic when she was calling me and trying to get testing sites, trying to make sure that a lot of her constituents were tested and had received the vaccine.

It is very easy for our colleagues on the other side now to say, well, this is over. It is time to move on. But the bottom line is that we never know for sure exactly what is going to manifest itself. Even when the President said yesterday that he is planning on ending this public health emergency on May 11, notice he said ``plan'' because we are not sure that that is possible.

In any case, it makes no sense to just say that we are going to do this immediately upon enactment of this bill--which is not going to be enacted, but nonetheless--because we need to do a lot of preparation and planning. We did some of that even in the omnibus that passed at the end of the last session with continuous eligibility for Medicaid, for example.

My understanding is the way this bill is worded, that would end if this passed immediately, as well.

Mr. Speaker, so our point is that this is a pandemic that we just have to be very careful about what we do. We have to do adequate preparation.

The President has said May 11 is the likely date. That is fine. But it has to be based on science. We shouldn't be getting up here and say, ``end it immediately.''


Mr. PALLONE. Mr. Speaker, may I inquire how much time remains on both sides?


Mr. PALLONE. Tlaib).

I listened to my colleague from Kentucky, but as much as I respect him, I totally disagree with what he has been saying here.

Under the public law right now, the emergency--when it starts, when it ends--is done by the administration. Specifically, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, I guess, recommends to the President. There is a reason for that, and that is because he gets all this information from various sources about the science, about when we should be doing this.

I disagree to say that we, as the Congress, should be the ones that make that determination either to begin or end.

In addition to that, the gentleman from Kentucky mentioned in response to one of my Democratic colleagues the provision that we passed in the last Congress in the Inflation Reduction Act to negotiate prices for prescription drugs under Medicare. The fact of the matter is that wasn't a cut to Medicare. That was a way of trying to make drug prices more affordable for our seniors.

To suggest that somehow that is a cut I don't think is accurate. I mean, this is a major savings to seniors out of pocket once this program goes into effect.

By way of background, again, some of my Democratic colleagues have stressed that we hear constantly from the other side of the aisle this idea that the Republicans are going to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless they can cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid and other vital programs. They seem so determined to cut Americans' healthcare that they are willing to recklessly risk defaulting on the national debt and wreaking havoc on the economy.

Again, it is the same thing here. What we are saying is if you cut off this public health emergency earlier than what the President is suggesting, under this bill, you end a lot of programs that are very important: continuous eligibility for Medicaid, a 20 percent cut in hospital payments, free testing, free vaccines.

I mean, all this ends, and it makes no sense, in my opinion. We should be trying to do what we can to help American families and make the right decisions based on the science.

Mr. Speaker, let me just say this in closing. We do have one more speaker, though.

I think that this legislation that is before us today is totally unnecessary and creates all kinds of problems. In other words, the President has indicated his plan is to end the emergency on, I believe he said, May 12. We estimated it would probably end sometime in April of this year when we were working on the omnibus at the end of last year. We put in the omnibus a lot of protections and guardrails for when the public health emergency would end, but there is still more that needs to be done.

My concern is that the way this bill is written, it basically eliminates a lot of those guardrails, a lot of those protections, like the continuous eligibility for Medicaid.

At the same time, it doesn't allow, because it says immediately upon enactment, us to wind this down in an effective way so that we don't have problems like the 20 percent cut for hospitals, eliminating continuous eligibility, free testing, free vaccines.

There are so many things here that the public relies on--I didn't even mention the veterans, the nursing homes, the SNAP program--that, to me, it is reckless to say we are just going to end it immediately.

Let's shelve this legislation. I suggest a ``no'' vote. Let the President and this administration wind this process down in an effective way to protect Americans.

Mr. PALLONE. Mr. Speaker, I urge opposition to this bill. As Mr. Takano said, so many things will immediately end needlessly from this legislation.


Mr. PALLONE. Mr. Speaker, on that I demand the yeas and nays.

The yeas and nays were ordered.