Provisions for Seniors in Coronavirus Relief Bills

By Matt Gontarchick

Of the three economic relief bills have been enacted into law since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, two offer key provisions to help older Americans adapt to the unprecedented public health emergency.

The Families First Coronavirus Act (H.R. 6201) was enacted into law on March 18.  It assists seniors by providing $250 million in additional funding to Aging and Disability Programs under the Older Americans Act (OAA) through September 30, 2021.  From this amount, $160 million is provided for home-delivered nutrition services, $80 million for congregate nutrition services, and $10 million for nutrition services for Native Americans.  The bill also clarifies that state matching requirements under the OAA do not apply funds made available under this legislation.  According to guidance from the Administration for Community Living, state units on aging may subtract five percent of funding provided under the OAA or H.R. 6201 to make direct expenditure or procure items on a statewide level if certain conditions are met.

Enacted on March 27, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748) provides much more relief to seniors.   One provision based on legislation introduced by Reps. Susan Wild (D-PA) and Phil Roe (R-TN) waives nutrition requirements for meals programs under the OAA for the duration of the public health emergency to ensure seniors can receive meals when no other food options are available.  It also expands the criteria for eligibility to receive home-delivered meals to include seniors unable to obtain meals due to social distancing.

The CARES Act also provides the Secretary of Labor with new authorities to extend older adults’ participation in community service projects under the OAA to ensure their continued employment under the program.  For instance, the bill allows the Secretary to increase the average participation cap for eligible participants as well as increase the amount available to pay authorized administrative costs for a project for the duration of the crisis.

Additionally, the CARES Act reauthorizes Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program (GWEP) from Fiscal Years 2021 to 2025 and provides over $40 million in appropriations.  It also updates the program to clarify that it supports the training of health professionals in geriatrics as opposed to a more generalized development of a health care workforce that supports seniors.  The CARES Act also prioritizes GWEP applicants that benefit rural or medically underserved populations of older adults and adjusts the amounts for Geriatric Academic Career Awards.

The CARES Act provides further relief to seniors in the form of assistance through public health insurance programs.  Specifically, the bill temporarily suspends Medicare sequestration from May 1 through December 31,2020.  This will allow health care providers to receive an increase in fee-for-service payments by roughly two percent compared to what they otherwise would have received during such period. 

To help states maintain health care spending for the duration of the national emergency, the bill provides an opportunity for each state Medicaid program’s federal medical assistance percentage to increase by 6.2 percent (see CMS guidance).  To qualify for the increase, state programs must not increase eligibility restrictions or raise premiums beyond January 1, 2020 levels and must cover both coronavirus testing and treatment services.

For seniors facing income losses in the wake of the crisis, the bill prohibits landlords from evicting tenants and charging fees and penalties related to nonpayment of rent for a period of 120 days.  This only applies if the landlord’s mortgage is insured, guaranteed, or assisted in any way by several programs including HUD, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.

A key feature of the CARES Act provides one-time cash payments of up to $1,200 to help offset the economic damage of the pandemic.  To be considered eligible for the payment, one must have a social security number, have filed taxes in 2018 or 2019 (or receive Social Security payments of earning were not high enough to file), and earned less than $99,000 for single filers, $136,500 for heads of household, or $198,000 for married filers according to the most recent tax return filed.  The federal government began depositing the payments into taxpayers’ bank accounts on April 11, and taxpayers can check the status of their payments on the IRS website

As the coronavirus continues to wreak havoc on the health care system and the economy, additional legislation is sorely needed.  Unfortunately, congressional leaders are currently locked in a stalemate over negotiations to provide billions of dollars in additional funding for the Paycheck Program, which provides forgivable loans for small businesses affected by the crisis.  Lawmakers in both parties have also discussed the need for a fourth coronavirus bill, although details are scant.  As things stand, additional legislative action to directly aid seniors is not likely until Congress returns to Washington on May 4 at the earliest.

Matt Gontarchick is Associate, Chamber Hill Strategies, in Washington, D.C.