‘We will sign:’ Florida Gov. DeSantis champions potential 6-week abortion bill

‘We will sign:’ Florida Gov. DeSantis champions potential 6-week abortion bill

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would sign a six-week abortion ban if and when it came to fruition during a news briefing Wednesday discussing the proposed “Framework for Freedom” 2023-24 state budget.

“We’re for pro-life. I urge the legislature to work, produce good stuff, and we will sign,” DeSantis said.

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At a news conference focused on toll relief back in December 2022, the governor further spoke about how he’s “willing to sign great life legislation.”

“That’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” said DeSantis, in reference to hardening abortion restrictions in the state.

Previously, Rep. Webster Barnaby (R-Deltona) filed a similar anti-abortion bill titled the “Florida Heartbeat Act” back in September 2021. House Bill 167, which died in session, prohibited physicians from performing or inducing abortion if a fetal heartbeat was detected or if a physician failed to conduct a test to detect fetal heartbeat.

This comes after DeSantis signed into law a statewide ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. This went into effect July 2022, despite subsequent legal battles playing out. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper had initially issued a temporary injunction to block the law, finding that it violated the Florida Constitution, before courts tossed out the ruling.

The law has since been kept in place by the Florida Supreme Court, despite a case filed against it by seven abortion clinics and a doctor.

Opponents of stricter abortion regulations have vocalized their concerns in courts and protests across Central Florida and the nation.

“Make no mistake: peoples’ health care and lives are on the line,” said Dr. Sujatha Prabhakaran, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.

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Republican-led panel targets COVID relief dollars for review

Republican-led panel targets COVID relief dollars for review

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

More than 1,000 people have pleaded guilty or have been convicted on federal charges of defrauding the myriad COVID-19 relief programs that Congress established in the early days of the pandemic. And more than 600 other people and entities face federal fraud charges.

But that’s just the start, according to investigators scheduled to testify Wednesday to a congressional committee as House Republicans mark the beginning of what they promise will be aggressive oversight of President Joe Biden’s administration.

The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability is holding its first hearing in the new Congress on fraud and waste in federal pandemic spending. Congress approved about $4.6 trillion in spending from six coronavirus relief laws, beginning in March 2020 when Donald Trump was president.

“We owe it to the American people to get to the bottom of the greatest theft of American taxpayer dollars in history,” said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the committee’s chairman.

The Government Accountability Office is expected to tell the committee that the number of cases of suspected fraud is certain to grow in the coming months. For example, the inspector general for the Small Business Administration has more than 500 ongoing investigations involving loan programs designed to help businesses meet operating expenses during the pandemic. The inspector general for the Labor Department continues to open at least 100 unemployment insurance fraud investigations each week.

The GAO said the more than 1,000 convictions related to COVID-19 relief fraud are one measure of how extensive it was. How much money was lost to fraud? That’s unknown, the GAO said, but it reported in December that an extrapolation of Labor Department data would suggest more than $60 billion in fraudulent unemployment insurance payments during the pandemic. The GAO also warned that such an extrapolation has inherent limitations and should be interpreted with caution.

Still, lawmakers are anxious to discern how much theft has occurred and what can be done to stop it in future emergencies.

“We must identify where this money went, how much ended up in the hands of fraudsters or ineligible participants, and what should be done to ensure it never happens again,” Comer said.

Some 20 inspectors general work collaboratively to investigate pandemic relief spending. Michael Horowitz, who chairs a committee Congress created in March 2020 to lead oversight of COVID-19 spending, is also scheduled to testify.

In his prepared remarks, Horowitz said the committee issued a fraud alert this week regarding the use of more than 69,000 questionable Social Security numbers to obtain $5.4 billion in pandemic loans and grants.

Also testifying is David Smith, an assistant director of the Office of Investigations at the U.S. Secret Service, who predicts that efforts to recover stolen assets and hold criminals accountable for pandemic fraud will continue for years to come.

How will life change once the COVID-19 emergency ends?

How will life change once the COVID-19 emergency ends?

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The declaration of a COVID-19 public health emergency three years ago changed the lives of millions of Americans by offering increased health care coverage, beefed-up food assistance and universal access to coronavirus vaccines and tests.

Much of that is now coming to an end, with President Joe Biden’s administration saying it plans to end the emergency declarations on May 11.

Here’s a look at what will stay and what will go once the emergency order is lifted:

COVID-19 TESTS, TREATMENTS AND VACCINES

The at-home nasal swabs, COVID-19 vaccines as well as their accompanying boosters, treatments and other products that scientists have developed over the last three years will still be authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration once the public health emergency is over.

But how much people pay for certain COVID-related products may change.

Insurers will no longer be required to cover the cost of free at-home COVID-19 tests.

Free vaccines, however, won’t come to an end with the public health emergency.

“There’s no one right now who cannot get a free vaccine or booster,” said Cynthia Cox, vice president at Kaiser Family Foundation. “Right now all the vaccines that are being administered are still the ones purchased by the federal government.”

But the Biden administration has said it is running out of money to buy up vaccines and Congress has not budged on the president’s requests for more funding.

Many states expect they can make it through the spring and summer, but there are questions around what their vaccine supply will look like going into the fall — when respiratory illness typically start to spike, said Anne Zink, the president of the The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“We’re all anxious to find out more about that,” Zink said.

MEDICAID

Medicaid enrollment ballooned during the pandemic, in part because the federal government prohibited states from removing people from the program during the public health emergency once they had enrolled.

The program offers health care coverage to roughly 90 million children and adults — or 1 out of every 4 Americans.

Late last year, Congress told states they could start removing ineligible people in April. Millions of people are expected to lose their coverage, either because they now make too much money to qualify for Medicare or they’ve moved. Many are expected to be eligible for low-cost insurance plans through the Affordable Care Act’s private marketplace or their employer.

STUDENT LOANS

Payments on federal student loans were halted in March 2020 under the Trump administration and have been on hold since. The Biden administration announced a plan to forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debts for individuals with incomes of less than $125,000 or households with incomes under $250,000.

But that forgiveness plan — which more than 26 million people have applied for — is on pause, thrown into legal limbo while awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court.

The Justice Department initially argued that the Secretary of Education has “sweeping authority” to waive rules relating to student financial aid during a national emergency, per the 2003 HEROES Act that was adopted during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A Biden administration official told The Associated Press Tuesday that ending the health emergencies will not change the legal argument for student loan debt cancellation, saying the COVID-19 pandemic affected millions of student borrowers who might have fallen behind on their loans during the emergency.

The pause on student loan payments is expected to end 60 days after the Supreme Court ruling.

IMMIGRATION AT THE BORDER

Border officials will still be able to deny people the right to seek asylum, a rule that was introduced in March 2020 as COVID-19 began its spread.

Those restrictions remain in place at the U.S.-Mexico border, pending a Supreme Court review, regardless of the COVID-19 emergency’s expiration. Republican lawmakers sued after the Biden administration moved to end the restrictions, known as Title 42, last year. The Supreme Court kept the restrictions in place in December until it can weigh the arguments.

The end of the emergency may bolster the legal argument that the Title 42 restrictions should no longer be in place. The emergency restrictions fell under health regulations and have been criticized as a way to keep migrants from coming to the border, rather than to stop the spread of the virus.

TELEHEALTH

COVID-19’s arrival rapidly accelerated the use of telehealth, with many providers and hospital systems shifting their delivery of care to a smartphone or computer format.

The public health emergency declaration helped hasten that approach because it suspended some of the strict rules that had previously governed telehealth and allowed doctors to bill Medicare for care delivered virtually, encouraging hospital systems to invest more heavily in telehealth systems.

Congress has already agreed to extend many of those telehealth flexibilities for Medicare through the end of next year.

FOOD ASSISTANCE

Relaxed rules during the COVID-19 public health emergency made it easier for individuals and families to receive a boost in benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Some state and congressional action has started to wind down some of that. Emergency allotments — typically about $82 a month, according to the Food Research and Action Center — will come to an end as soon as March in more than two dozen states.

Food help for unemployed adults, under the age of 50 and without children, will also change after the public health emergency is lifted in May. During the emergency declaration, a rule that required those individuals to work or participate in job training for 20 hours per week to remain eligible for SNAP benefits was suspended. That rule will be in place again starting in June. SNAP aid for more low-income college students will also draw down in June.

STATE COVID EMERGENCIES

At least a half-dozen states — including California, Delaware, Illinois, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Texas — have some form of COVID emergency declaration or disaster order still in place. But those orders have limited practical effect.

New Mexico’s public health emergency, which has been extended through Friday, advised health care facilities to abide by federal coronavirus requirements. Delaware has continued to operate under a “public health emergency,” which has suspended staffing ratios in long-term care facilities.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has said his emergency order will end Feb. 28. Newsom has issued 596 specific orders, from stay-at-home mandates to tax-filing extensions, during the pandemic. Most have expired, but he plans to ask lawmakers make two into permanent laws — one letting nurses order and dispense COVID-19 medication and another allowing lab workers to solely process coronavirus tests.

MONEY FOR HOSPITALS

Hospitals will take a big financial hit in May, when the emergency comes to an end. They’ll no longer get an extra 20% for treating COVID-19 patients who are on Medicare.

The end to those payments comes at a time when many hospitals are under financial pressure, struggling with workforce shortages and dealing with the pain of inflation, said Stacey Hughes, the executive vice president at the American Hospitals Association.

Associated Press writers JoNel Aleccia in Los Angeles, Colleen Long and Seung Min Kim in Washington and David Lieb, in Jefferson City, Missouri, contributed to this report.

President Biden to end COVID-19 emergencies on May 11

President Biden to end COVID-19 emergencies on May 11

WKMG News 6 & ClickOrlando

President Joe Biden informed Congress on Monday that he will end the twin national emergencies for addressing COVID-19 on May 11, as most of the world has returned closer to normalcy nearly three years after they were first declared.

The move to end the national emergency and public health emergency declarations would formally restructure the federal coronavirus response to treat the virus as an endemic threat to public health that can be managed through agencies’ normal authorities.

It comes as lawmakers have already ended elements of the emergencies that kept millions of Americans insured during the pandemic. Combined with the drawdown of most federal COVID-19 relief money, it would also shift the development of vaccines and treatments away from the direct management of the federal government.

WHO: COVID still an emergency but nearing ‘inflection’ point. Here’s what that means

WHO: COVID still an emergency but nearing ‘inflection’ point. Here’s what that means

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The coronavirus remains a global health emergency, the World Health Organization chief said Monday, after a key advisory panel found the pandemic may be nearing an “inflexion point” where higher levels of immunity can lower virus-related deaths.

Speaking at the opening of WHO’s annual executive board meeting, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “there is no doubt that we’re in a far better situation now” than a year ago — when the highly transmissible Omicron variant was at its peak.

But Tedros warned that in the last eight weeks, at least 170,000 people have died around the world in connection with the coronavirus. He called for at-risk groups to be fully vaccinated, an increase in testing and early use of antivirals, an expansion of lab networks, and a fight against “misinformation” about the pandemic.

“We remain hopeful that in the coming year, the world will transition to a new phase in which we reduce hospitalizations and deaths to the lowest possible level,” he said.

Tedros’ comments came moments after WHO released findings of its emergency committee on the pandemic which reported that some 13.1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered — with nearly 90% of health workers and more than four in five people over 60 years of age having completed the first series of jabs.

“The committee acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic may be approaching an inflexion point,” WHO said in a statement. Higher levels of immunity worldwide through vaccination or infection “may limit the impact” of the virus that causes COVID-19 on “morbidity and mortality,” the committee said.

“(B)ut there is little doubt that this virus will remain a permanently established pathogen in humans and animals for the foreseeable future,” it said. While Omicron versions are easily spread, “there has been a decoupling between infection and severe disease” compared to that of earlier variants.

Committee members cited “pandemic fatigue” and the increasing public perception that COVID-19 isn’t as much of a risk as it once was, leading to people to increasingly ignore or disregard health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.