RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) stopped at the McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond on Friday to follow up on employee concerns surrounding COVID-19. The visit comes as Congress is preparing to negotiate another relief bill at the end of the month.
In June, Sen. Kaine and U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) penned a letter following reports that the facility was lacking personal protective equipment, testing supplies and contact tracing resources. 8News caught up with Kaine after he toured the facility to find out where things stood.
PPE & Testing
Following his visit, Kaine said he is more confident about PPE supplies but more concerned about testing capacity at VA facilities across the country.
Kaine, a member of the Senate Health Committee, said McGuire VA Medical Center is currently stockpiling PPE in advance of what could be a dangerous flu season this fall. He said there’s still some concern about supply levels when more people start returning for treatment.
Kaine said VA’s are currently ‘rationing’ coronavirus tests.
“Remember it’s the test kit, the swabs, the re-agents and the ability to get a result back promptly. They need all of that and thus far they’re just having to deal with too limited an availability of testing. That has to be a top priority for us,” Kaine said.
Back in May, McGuire VA Medical Center employees joined the chorus of frontline workers demanding hazard pay.
When we reached out to the United Department of Veterans Affairs at the time, they said in a statement, “Hazard pay is to compensate employees when risks cannot be reasonably mitigated and employees cannot be safely protected, and that is the opposite of the current environment at the Central Virginia VA Health Care System.”
House Democrats passed a bill that includes $200 billion in funding for hazard pay for essential workers but ‘The Heroes Act’ has long been considered ‘dead on arrival’ in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Kaine said this is one of many priorities Senate Democrats are negotiating as part of a fifth coronavirus relief package at the end of July.
“If the package that we pass has hazard pay in it, these folks will receive it,” Kaine said. “The VA doesn’t have the financial capacity to do hazard pay unless Congress passes a hazard pay bill.”
When asked about a second round of stimulus checks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently said Republicans are considering cutting off payments at an annual salary of up to $40,000.
“I would worry about that cut off being too low,” Kaine said.
The last round of checks dished out $1,200 to individuals making up to $75,000 per year, though the threshold was higher for families.
Under the CARES Act, Congress has been funding a $600 weekly boost to typical unemployment benefits but those payments are set to expire on July 25th.
House Democrats voted to extend the deadline through January 2021 but Kaine couldn’t promise that the proposal would be kept in the next package.
“I think we will spend that money on people’s needs but we might make it connected to paying the rent, paying the mortgage, buying food, hiring childcare,” Kaine said.
Kaine said additional funding for rent and mortgage relief is one of his top priorities.
The Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development just launched a relief program using $50 million in initial funding from the CARES Act but Gov. Ralph Northam has asked for more than $2 billion to sustain the support.
Kaine said he is co-sponsoring a bill to provide $100 billion nationwide, which he said is more than enough to fulfill the state’s request. The question is, will it pass?
“The worst thing that could happen right now is for people to lose their homes,” Kaine said.
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