Sunday, March 29, 2020

Unemployment Claims in Florida Multiplied by Ten Over the Past Week Thanks to Coronavirus

Florida saw a drastic jump in unemployment claims over the past week as the coronavirus outbreak continues to hit the economy.

Last week, according to a report from the U.S. Labor Department released on Thursday, there were 74,021 claims in the Sunshine State–up more than 10 times from the 6,463 claims for the week ending March 14.

That is a pattern which held at the national level as well. For the week ending on March 14, there were around 300,000 claims across the nation–which jumped to around 3.3 million last week.

U.S. Labor Sec. Eugene Scalia weighed in on the numbers on Thursday.

“This large increase in unemployment claims was not unexpected, and results from the recognition by Americans across the country that we have had to temporarily halt certain activities in order to defeat the coronavirus,” Scalia said. The hard impact of this on American workers was anticipated in the bill passed by the Senate last night, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars in unprecedented funding for traditional unemployment insurance and pandemic unemployment assistance, and one-time cash payments of $1200 or more to Americans making $75,000 or less ($150,000 for those who are married).

“Perhaps more important, the Senate bill also provides incentives and funding for businesses to keep their workers on payroll, so that, as soon as possible, we can spring back to the strong economic conditions we enjoyed just weeks ago,” Scalia added.

Bob Levinson, Florida Resident Held in Iran for 13 Years, Presumed Dead

The family of Bob Levinson, a Florida resident who has been missing in Iran for almost 13 years, said this week they believed he was dead.

Levinson worked for the FBI and DEA went missing in 2007 during a private investigation case in Iran involving cigarette smuggling. Back in 2013, the Associated Press ran a story insisting Levinson worked for the CIA.

“We recently received information from U.S. officials that has led both them and us to conclude that our wonderful husband and father died while in Iranian custody. We don’t know when or how he died, only that it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Levinson family said in a statement.

“Bob Levinson was a truly remarkable individual–the best husband, father, brother, grandfather and friend anyone could ever ask for. He was an American hero–a true patriot, and his compassion and kindness knew no bounds,” they added. “We will miss his warmth, humor, and wisdom, but most of all, we will miss the deep and unconditional love he had for each one of us. He will never be forgotten–we will make sure of it.”

Last year, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., brought out the “Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act” which “cements in place programs to address hostage-taking, and gives the United States government new tools to rescue hostages and punish their captors.” The bill sanctioned individuals who take Americans hostage, elevates the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to the rank of Ambassador and creates an inter-agency Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell and a Hostage Response Group. The bill cleared the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, on which Deutch sits, earlier this month.

Deutch, the chairman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, has been working closely with the Levinson family.

“I am devastated for the Levinson family,” Deutch said. “Christine, Susan, Stephanie, Sarah, Samantha, Dan, David, and Doug are remarkable people that I respect enormously. They have endured more than any family should ever have to, and it has been my great honor to fight alongside them for Bob’s return. They deserved a better outcome. They deserved to be reunited with Bob.

“Bob and his family are a part of our community. We all mourn with them. We all offer our love and support to them. Bob served our country nobly, and our country owes him and his family our gratitude,” Deutch added. “I deeply appreciate all of my colleagues who have stood alongside me supporting the Levinsons. I thank the FBI, the State Department, and every official in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations who made bringing Bob home a priority. We will never stop fighting to bring Bob home. Sadly, that’s now a fight to bring him to his final resting place with his family.

“Rest in peace, Bob Levinson,” Deutch said in conclusion.

>After years of pressing Iran for the release of American citizen and Florida resident Bob Levinson, the news relayed to his family was the one none of us ever wanted to hear,” Rubio said on Wednesday. “Jeanette and I send our deepest heartfelt condolences to the Levinson family. I have had the honor of getting to know his incredible family over the last decade. No family should ever have to experience what they have endured. It is my view, which I have shared with the highest levels of this administration, that the U.S. government should hold the evil regime accountable for this and demand the immediate release of all other American hostages held in Iran.”

 

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell Starts Coronavirus Small and Medium Business Recovery Information Effort

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell

This week, U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., launched a public information campaign to inform and urge small to medium-sized business owners affected by COVID-19 to apply for emergency aid

Mucarsel-Powell launched a webpage where all the relevant information for business owners will be available at peoples’ fingertips, will host weekly virtual events to update local business owners, and will coordinate with the Small Business Administration (SBA) and Florida International University’s (FIU) Small Business Development Center (SBDC), who will be hosting webinars and information sessions for applicants.

“After working hard in Washington to approve funds to alleviate the financial strain facing entrepreneurs and business owners as a result of COVID-19, I now want to make sure our local businesses know how to access these benefits. That’s why I am launching this important outreach and information effort called ‘Coronavirus Small & Medium Business Recovery’ to ensure that South Florida local business owners and entrepreneurs have all the information necessary to apply and receive federal emergency aid,” said Murcarsel-Powell on Wednesday. “Small to mid-sized businesses and entrepreneurs are critical to our local economy and they are feeling the negative consequences of this crisis.”

Mucarsel-Powell announced the Small and Medium Business Recovery campaign at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon with Victoria Guerrero, the District Director for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Mucarsel-Powell has called for more assistance to small and mid-sized businesses to be used to keep employees on staff and to meet basic needs that will keep operations open. She has been pushing to decrease or eliminate small business loan interests, expand eligibility for these loans, and defer loan payments for the duration of this crisis.

Florida Healthy Kids Looks to Protect Members During COVID-19 Outbreak

In light of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak across the nation and in Florida, this week, the Florida Healthy Kids Corporation’s (FHKC) Board of Directors adopted and recognized benefit and eligibility adjustments to help ensure children face fewer barriers in accessing the care they may need during this emergency.

“As the threat of COVID-19 impacts our state, it’s important we do all we can to lessen the financial burden this public health emergency has on Florida families,” said state CFO Jimmy Patronis. “Our children are the future, and I applaud Dr. Haridopolos and the Florida Healthy Kids Board of Directors for working to increase affordability and streamline access to care for COVID-19 testing to ensure our children are protected. Floridians are resilient but we must continue to work together to weather this storm.”

Dr. Stephanie Haridopolos, the chairwoman of the FHKC, also weighed in.

“Floridians are currently facing unprecedented times and many new challenges in the wake of COVID-19. While current knowledge gives us hope that COVID-19 will largely spare our children, we must be proactive and take every precaution possible to help them stay healthy. I speak for the full Board of Directors in saying we are proud to take these steps to protect Florida’s kids, and we appreciate the leadership displayed by many at the national, state and local levels to make this possible,” Haridopolos said.

The measures adopted or recognized by the FHKC Board include:

To ensure affordability of medical care:

      • Waiver of all costs associated with COVID-19 testing
      • Waiver of copays for most commonly used services through April 30 (done in partnership with Aetna Better Health of Florida, Simply Healthcare Plans and Community Care Plan)

To improve access to care:

      • Relaxed prior authorizations for hospitals, physicians, home health and durable medical equipment
      • Allowance of 90-day supply of medications at retail and mail-order pharmacies (only for medications for which a 90-day supply is clinically appropriate)
      • Waiver of early refill requirements

To provide ample opportunity for eligibility and enrollment (upon a family’s request):

      • Retroactive enrollment for new applicants to the start of the month when the application is approved, and payment is received
      • Additional time to complete annual renewals
      • Additional time to pay premiums and retroactively enroll (e.g. March payment is made on March 27; coverage is retroactive back to March 1)

The benefit adjustments allow health plans to provide much-needed relief to Florida Healthy Kids (subsidized and full-pay) families, and the eligibility adjustments apply to the following Florida KidCare programs: Florida Healthy Kids (subsidized and full-pay) and MediKids (subsidized and full-pay).

These measures are made possible through multiple federal and state regulatory mechanisms, including an approved Section 1135 waiver submitted by the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) after President Trump’s emergency declaration on March 13; the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) state plan and proposed state plan amendment; executive orders issued by Governor Ron DeSantis; and federal legislation.

Section 1135 waivers afford state Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP programs greater flexibility to remove administrative burdens and expand access to needed services. Further, the CHIP state plan, which serves as the basis for the program’s regulatory framework, includes consumer-centric provisions that can be enacted during times of disaster.

The Florida Healthy Kids Corporation is a nonprofit, public-private partnership created by the Florida Legislature to expand access to affordable, child-centered health insurance. The Corporation administers Florida Healthy Kids, a comprehensive health and dental insurance program for Florida children from age 5 through the end of age 18. The Corporation also provides marketing, customer services and administrative services for Florida KidCare.

 

Kathy Castor: Federal Coronavirus Funds Going to Tampa Family Health Centers

With President Donald Trump and Congress approving an $8.3 billion bill to help the U.S. deal with coronavirus earlier this month, some of the funds are coming to Tampa.

This week, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., announced that Tampa Family Health Centers will be getting two grants totaling around $430,000 from the $8.3 billion bill.

“I’m working to speed emergency aid to our Tampa area neighbors, families and workers. This is the first shot in the arm that our Tampa community is receiving from the Congress and administration. Tampa Family Health Centers is a vital lifeline for families, especially during this uncertain time,” said Castor on Wednesday.

“This a grave health crisis that also is taking a toll on jobs and paychecks,” Castor added. “We are counting on courageous and devoted front line workers and health professionals like those at Tampa Family Health Centers. They will help us get through this.  I want to assure our neighbors that additional help is on the way in the coming days.”

“Nearly $1 billion for procurement of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to support healthcare preparedness, and for Community Health Centers to improve medical surge capacity was included in the first aid package, signed into law on March 6, 2020,” Castor’s office noted.

 

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

Florida Senators Vote for $2 Trillion Federal Stimulus Bill to Help Economy With Coronavirus Crisis

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate passed a $2 trillion federal stimulus package to support the economy which has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

The “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act” passed on a 96-0 vote with both of Florida’s senators supporting it. It will send up $1,200 for every American adult making up to $75,000 a year and $2,400 to married couples who file jointly if they make up to $150,000. It also includes $500 payments for every child. Individuals making more than $75,000 will see a $5 reduction for each $100 they earn up to $112,500 for individuals.

As the chairman of the U.S. Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., backed the measure and helped ensure $377 billion of it will be used to help small businesses.

“Communities across Florida and our nation are reeling from this unprecedented crisis, and today the Senate acted on an unprecedented response to provide relief to Americans, small businesses, and our economy,” Rubio said. “Our bipartisan small business package, which was included, will provide emergency relief so that millions of American workers can keep their jobs and millions of small businesses can stay open. As our nation works to contain the spread of the coronavirus, I remain in close contact with the Trump administration and Governor DeSantis to ensure that Florida has the resources it needs during this public health crisis.”

Rubio also added a provision which ‘would require drugmakers to provide the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with information to determine volume of APIs used in pharmaceuticals.”

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., weighed in late on Wednesday night, saying he voted for the measure despite some problems with it.

“I have significant reservations about many provisions in this bill that are antithetical to everything I believe in, but we’re facing a crisis and this is the only option to get immediate help to small businesses and unemployed workers,” Scott said. “My focus is on the workers who have lost their jobs, had their hours cut or are getting lower tips, and small businesses that have been forced to close or have lost significant revenue. I want to make sure the people that need help the most can get the help they need, but we still need to be responsible with taxpayer money.

“There are many good things in this bill – more funding for our health care workers, personal protective equipment and expanded testing, and more support for small businesses. I was also glad that negotiators included many of the recommendations I’ve been making over the last few weeks,” Scott continued. “I called for using the existing Unemployment Insurance program, which employers have paid into and is already well-funded in many states, as the best and most direct way of getting money to workers who have been laid off, furloughed, or had their hours reduced. This bill does that. But Senate Democrats refused to amend the legislation to prevent Unemployment Insurance benefits from exceeding a worker’s previous salary. When this crisis is over, we want everyone to go back into the workforce and we should not be creating a perverse incentive not to work. Put more simply – using taxpayer dollars to pay people more to not work than they would receive if they were back on the job is just silly. This will significantly hamper our economic recovery.

“I called for a moratorium on financial payments, including rent, mortgages, credit card payments, taxes, and utilities. While this bill doesn’t go as far as I would like, the moratorium on evictions will provide much-needed relief and peace of mind for those struggling to make ends meet,” Scott added. “I was very clear about my opposition to bailouts for big corporations. These companies have enjoyed a decade of financial success and a blank check from taxpayers was unacceptable. While I still fear this bill could be used to provide relief to companies that can afford to take care of their workers without government assistance, I’m glad to see it requires a return on investment for the taxpayers. It also includes significant oversight of how the funds are disbursed and prevents these companies from laying off their workers or buying back their stock. I will be vigilant in making sure that these companies don’t abuse this process.

“But there are provisions in this bill that I wholeheartedly disagree with. I’m concerned that sending taxpayer money to Americans who still have jobs and are receiving a paycheck is a policy that has not been well thought out. This money won’t stimulate the economy. In a time of crisis, people don’t spend money; they save it. And many of the places they might be tempted to help stimulate are businesses that the government has shut down,” Scott said. “We have to remember that $2 trillion in new spending means a $2 trillion tax increase somewhere down the road – even in a crisis, we need to be smart about how we spend taxpayer dollars. We know that Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi tried to stuff this bill with their liberal pet projects that have nothing to do with this crisis, proving once again that Democrats should never be in charge of anything. Senator McConnell and President Trump were successful in beating back most of them, but this bill still includes funding for pet projects wholly unrelated to responding to coronavirus, like the Kennedy Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, and bailouts for mass transit.”

Scott said the bill would have consequences down the road.

“The price tag on this bill is staggering,” Scott insisted. “This bill amounts to almost $6,000 in new debt for every man, woman and child in America. We should not fool ourselves into thinking this is something we can afford. When this crisis is over, Congress must propose a plan that cuts federal spending over 10 years by at least the total amount this bill spends – funding for the Kennedy Center should be the first thing we cut. We must address our growing annual deficits and national debt. We have no excuse.

“Today, the Senate has taken significant steps to support American workers and small businesses that are struggling. But we cannot forget that the best economic stimulus is to stem the spread of the coronavirus and get the American people back to work. I will focus every day on what I can do to make that a reality,” Scott said in conclusion.

With the bill now through the Senate, it goes before the U.S. House for a vote on Friday.

 

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

Stephanie Murphy: HHS Sending Almost $2 Million to True Health Clinics in Central Florida to Help With Coronavirus

Healthcare

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy announced True Health’s community health clinics in Central Florida are getting almost $2 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help lower earners and Floridians without insurance coverage deal with the continuing coronavirus crisis.

Murphy said that True Health’s clinics will be getting $1,733,628 from HHS. Earlier in the week, HHS awarded True Health an additional $126,389.

“This federal funding will help True Health boost their operations as they ramp up to care for new patients as a result of the coronavirus outbreak,” said Murphy. “Community health centers put public health first and treat patients regardless of income level or insurance coverage, and I’m proud these funds are coming to central Florida during this critical time. I’ll keep working to ensure central Florida has the resources we need to keep our families safe and healthy.”

“True Health’s mission is to provide high-quality, comprehensive healthcare at a reasonable cost to everyone. The funding received helps ensure more than 40,000 patients served yearly have access to essential health services,” said Latrice Stewart, the CEO of True Health.

“The federal government provides significant funding to support our nation’s 1,400 community health centers, which operate over 10,000 delivery sites across the country and serve 1 in 13 Americans,” Murphy’s office noted.

The congresswoman’s team also noted True Health has been operating in Central Florida for more than four decades and sees around 45,000 patients a year.

Representing all of Seminole County and some of the northern part of Orange County, Murphy was first elected to Congress in 2016.

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

Ashley Moody Issues Subpoenas Over Allegations of Price Gouging by Third-Party Sellers on Amazon

This week, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody issued more than 40 subpoenas to third-party sellers in Florida accused of price gouging on essential commodities through accounts on Amazon.

The subpoenas come as Moody’s Consumer Protection Division continues to review allegations of unlawful price increases on essential commodities during the COVID-19 state of emergency. Allegations against the third-party vendors include excessive price increases on commodities such as face masks, hand sanitizers and disinfectants of up to 1,662 percent.

“Floridians are searching for essential products needed to stay safe and healthy during this COVID-19 pandemic,” Moody said. “Sadly, when they find these products for sale online, they often discover that the price tag makes them unattainable. This is unacceptable and unlawful. My Consumer Protection investigators are working diligently to identify, investigate and bring to justice anyone trying to exploit this global health crisis to rip off Floridians, and we appreciate Amazon’s commitment to helping us stop third-party vendors trying to use its online platform to exploit the crisis.”

Before Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state emergency over the spread of COVID-19, activating Florida’s price gouging laws, Moody began communicating with Amazon and other retailers in an effort to protect Florida consumers. Since then, the Attorney General’s Office has worked with Amazon to:

  • Set up a system to quickly review and address the concerns of consumers who contact the Attorney General’s Price Gouging Hotline;
  • Provide refunds directly to Florida consumers—even if sellers were third parties;
  • Remove more than 35 posts selling products at inflated prices related to complaints made by Florida consumers to the Hotline; and
  • Create a specific point of contact for the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division to quickly address pricing and other consumer-related issues.

 

Matt Gaetz: Congress Needs to Stop Coronavirus Relief Funds From Going to Chinese Companies

matt gaetz

This week, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., offered a proposal to ensure that coronavirus relief funds allocated by Congress will not be sent to businesses connected to the Chinese regime.

Gaetz brought out the “No Chinese Handouts In National Assistance (No CHINA) Act” which would ensure “American taxpayer dollars used in any COVID-19 funding package do not support the communist regime in China, or businesses owned by the Chinese government.”

The Panhandle Republican’s office laid out some of the reasons for the congressman’s proposal.

“China’s inaction, distortion of data, and outright lies have exacerbated the global coronavirus epidemic, and helped fuel its rapid global spread. Under the No CHINA Act, companies owned by the Chinese government will not receive any American taxpayer dollars from congressional aid packages,” Gaetz’s office noted.

Gaetz weighed in on his proposal on Tuesday when he showcased it.

“Every single American worker displaced by COVID19 should be fully compensated, before one nickel from our treasury goes to Chinese-owned corporations operating here in the United States. Full stop,” Gaetz said.

The congressman, one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, took a page from the White House’s playbook as he continued to advocate for his bill.

“The global coronavirus pandemic has been exacerbated by the Chinese government’s malicious misinformation and propaganda campaign against the United States and its citizens. Allowing American taxpayers’ money to go to companies owned by the Communist Chinese government is antithetical to our ‘America First’ agenda,” Gaetz said.

“I’m proud to introduce the “No CHINA Act” today, which prevents appropriated money, including coronavirus relief funds, from being disbursed to businesses owned by the Chinese government. Chinese corporations operating in America must not be eligible for the upcoming trillion-dollar bailout, now or ever,”  Gaetz concluded.

There is one waiver included in the proposal.

“The President, in consultation with the Secretary of State, may waive the restriction under subsection (a) on a case-by-case basis if the President determines it is in the national security interests of the United States to do so,” Gaetz’s bill reads.

 

Reach Kevin Derby at kevin.derby@floridadaily.com.

Joe Biden Takes Aim at Ron DeSantis Over Coronavirus Response

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the heavy favorite to be the Democratic challenger to President Donald Trump in November, took aim at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the coronaviris crisis.

Biden called on DeSantis to follow the examples of other governors including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, and Gov. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, who have ordered most of the residents of their states to shelter-in-place.

“Floridians deserve science-based action from Gov. Ron DeSantis,” Biden said on Wednesday. “While other large states continue to take strong, urgent, and sweeping action to stop the spread of COVID-19, Florida has not.”

The Trump team quickly fired back on Biden and Democrats from across the state who have called on DeSantis to issue a shelter-in-place order.

“Joe Biden and Florida Democrats are politicizing a national emergency. Meanwhile, President Trump and Governor DeSantis are working around the clock to fight for the health and safety of all Floridians. Now is not the time for partisan politics – we are Floridians first,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokeswoman for the Trump Victory effort connected to the Republican National Committee (RNC).