Although an interim coronavirus-response bill sought to replenish a small business assistance program remains in limbo, House Democrats from New Jersey are already looking ahead to try to influence the next major bill in development – and the one after that.

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. 6th District, said his priorities build off the provision in the CARES Act that provides for people not to incur out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus testing.

“We would like to expand that to the treatment and to the drugs that you take for it an ultimately to the vaccine,” said Pallone, who said that was proposed in the House Democrats’ counter to the Senate Republicans’ last plan but didn’t make it into the final bill.

“The same way that we wanted everybody to be tested and still do, and not fork money out of pocket, we feel the same way about the treatment and the drugs because otherwise people won’t seek treatment and we won’t be able to get this virus under control and ultimately end this pandemic,” he said.

Pallone also wants the next bill to increase subsidies and tax credits people are eligible to receive to obtain insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplaces.

“Premiums are going to go up with all the expenses that hospitals and doctors are going to incur, and we feel that we have to have a higher level of subsidy because premiums are going up,” he said. “And we also want to raise the level of who’s eligible for these subsidies for the same reason, particularly for a high cost-of-living state like New Jersey.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J. 9th District, said he remains focused on how the remaining $70 billion in aid to hospitals from the CARES Act will be distributed. The first $30 billion treated states the same regardless of their number of confirmed COVID-19 infections, which Pascrell called “absurd.”

“With the second most cases, New Jersey has been shafted once more,” Pascrell said. “We expect the next wave of funding to be announced in just a few days. It had damn well better go to target hard-hit states like New Jersey.”

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J. 12th District, said she took part in a phone call a few days ago with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and said that the first tranche of aid shortchanged New Jersey because it didn’t consider Medicaid enrollment, the number of uninsured or rates of COVID-19 cases.

“And so we’ve been assured that the formula is going to be better. We shall wait and see,” Watson Coleman said. “We’re asking for an advance look into the elements that are going into the formula to make sure that New Jersey is treated more fairly.”

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J. 11th District, said she is advocating for increased financial support for settings such as nursing homes. She cited an outbreak at the New Jersey Firemen’s Home in Boonton where 22 residents and 15 health-care workers have tested positive. One person has died, she said.

“Quite frankly, we just haven’t done enough to protect that population, keep them safe,” Sherrill said. “So I’ve been working on legislation to help nursing homes, group homes and assisted living facilities, provide more money for them to purchase more PPE, train their staff, hire new staff and provide some hazard pay right now as they work there.”

Lawmakers said the health-care situation needs to be stabilized in order to mend the economy, which is in tatters after government-ordered shutdowns.

The current impasse in Congress has held up funding to continue the Paycheck Protection Program, which has already exhausted its initial $350 billion allotment. Republicans want to provide another $250 billion. Democrats say they support that but also want to add more funding for hospitals and states.

U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, D-N.J. 3rd District, said the bill needs to include guidelines for getting the money out to applicants more quickly because the first round was “disastrous.”

“What we know is that small businesses are the first to get hit and the last to recover in times of need, in times of crisis. And this time, they may not recover,” Kim said.

Kim said that until the virus is slowed and extensive testing is available, small businesses won’t be able to open and people won’t go there to shop. But in the meanwhile, they need help to stay open.

“I’m hearing from small business owners that are telling me that they only have a few days left,” Kim said. “This is a mission that cannot fail because what’s on the line is a way of life in America, a way of life for our Main Streets, our favorite local restaurants, our corner stores.”

U.S. Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. 7th District, said infrastructure must be part of future coronavirus response legislation.

“What we’re talking about today is not actually stimulus, although we’ve referred to these things as stimulus bills,” Malinowski said. “We’ve been keeping our economy on life support, but how do we recover is the next challenge.”

Malinowski said Democrats have a $760 billion infrastructure proposal – and that President Donald Trump has tweeted support for a similar priority, at even greater number. He said the two sides will probably not agree on the details at the start but that there’s “a realistic chance” of consensus.

“The country desperately needs this anyway,” he said. “But here’s the thing – there’s no better time to do it than when interest rates are essentially zero and no more urgent time to do it when we need to put people back to work and do some real stimulating of the economy.”

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A weekly report on unemployment claims published Thursday shows 141,420 filed initial claims for benefits last week in New Jersey – which was actually the lowest in four weeks. Over the last month, more than 718,000 new unemployment claims have been filed by state residents.

“We’re hoping that peak came this past week, because there is a slight downturn,” said U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. 1st District. “But still, we’re approaching 20% of our workforce being unemployed, a number that none of us really can put our hands around.”

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.