WV leaders seek more support in COVID-19 bill for struggling West Virginians

August 6, 2020

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Bloomberg file
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg file photo

Federal lawmakers could vote on a COVID-19 economic relief package as early as Wednesday, but West Virginia lawmakers and advocates for the poor and unemployed are concerned the bill still might be too little too late for people in the Mountain State.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told reporters he is hopeful the Senate will vote on the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability, and Schools (HEALS) Act by Wednesday, saying he is eager to get support for rural hospitals, more access to broadband and support for unemployed people and people living in poverty through the $1 trillion bill.

A lot of those points overlap with things Mountain State lawmakers and advocacy groups say are sorely needed in West Virginia, where 180,000 people filed unemployment insurance claims between March and early July.

A key point for the advocacy groups and Manchin include support for Medicaid after Gov. Jim Justice swept funds from West Virginia’s reserve accounts, including the state’s Medicaid match fund, in June to patch up a $287 million shortfall in the state’s budget. After the move in June, Justice said the state would finish the 2019-20 budget year, which ended June 30, with a $10 million surplus.

At the time, Justice said there were federal COVID-19 grants for Medicaid and other public support systems, including child care, foster care, SNAP benefits and education, worth more than $970 million.

The West Virginia Citizen Action Group hosted a news conference on July 29 to outline its concerns about the federal relief package, with Jessie Ice, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare, saying the HEALS Act is “a slap in the face to West Virginians.”

“West Virginia has already raided the Medicaid reserve fund to fill budget gaps at exactly the same time as enrollment increased by 30,000,” Ice said. “This number will only continue to rise. … Now is not the time to ignore Medicaid.”

State Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, and Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, spoke at the event, along with representatives from the West Virginia Association of Social Workers, Our Future West Virginia and the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, calling on Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to push for improvements in the HEALS Act.

“It’s unbelievable that, in the largest public health crisis we’ve seen in our lifetimes, with COVID-19 cases surging, Republican leaders in the Senate are proposing a relief package that doesn’t even address the health care needs of millions who have lost jobs and coverage,” said Gary Zuckett, executive director of the W.Va. Citizen Action Group.

Charkera Ervin, of Our Future West Virginia, said support will be needed for people who are facing eviction because they lost their jobs and their unemployment checks won’t cover the rent.

She said people who live in public housing or housing financed through the government had protection from eviction, but that protection isn’t extended to everyone who rents.

“The majority of West Virginians needing support are left on their own,” she said.

 The average amount of an unemployment check in West Virginia is $320 per week. Those checks had been supplemented by $600 per week from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, a COVID-19 relief package Congress passed in March. That aid expired last week.

The White House has indicated it would agree to $400 per week in the new package, according to a Washington Post report, but Manchin said no hard number had been agreed upon, as of Thursday. He said he expects the new package to include between $300 and $400 per week for unemployment when senators are called to return to consider the HEALS Act next week.