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Congressional Corner

Congressional Corner With Paul Tonko

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged nursing homes.

In today’s Congressional Corner, New York Congressman Paul Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th district, continues his conversation with WAMC’s Alan Chartock.

Alan Chartock: Paul Tonko, let's talk a little bit about nursing homes. When I watched the governor, the reporters are intent on asking him how you solve the nursing home problem. There are lots of issues. One of them is that if you put him into a spot where he has to say whether or not nursing home should take people who have the disease or should take them back, he says, yes. What do you say?

Congressman Paul Tonko: Well, I think, you know, whatever the decision is there, we need to make certain that the appropriate investments are made in our nursing homes. You know, we have seen the disaster, New York, New York City, primarily Metro New York, being the epicenter of this crisis, but the state for that matter being the epicenter of this crisis. What we learned painfully is that if you do not have the personal protective equipment, including the N-95 masks, which were you know, really in short supply, if you do not have the testing kit, it's all about testing, testing, testing. That is the determinant. It's about testing. It's about, making certain that there is tracing, so that those who have been diagnosed trace those individuals with whom they have interacted, and then it's about making a plan for recovery. But we cannot target this pandemic, this COVID-19 challenge without the appropriate investment in testing, and that certainly applies to our nursing homes, you know, if they're going to be impacted by the numbers, because, you know, many are the home for our most senior residents. Our most senior individuals, they are very targeted by this COVID, coronavirus, this COVID-19 situation. And so we need necessarily to have the testing kits, and then with those kits, and it is a frightening thing to think that this country was so reliant on some other economy, from other nations, on not only the testing kits, but the swabs of the various elements that are required with these kits. The fact that we're searching worldwide for masks, is a learning curve here for all of us that we need to make that self-sufficiency reigniting from domestic manufacturers within an industrial sector, so that we have a stronger outcome in case another pandemic should hit, and it most likely will.

So what's the role of the Congress in this?

I think the role of Congress certainly is to be bold. To make certain that we apply the, we reach to the legislation that will address the immediacy of the concern. We did that with an interim package most recently, that added $75 billion toward hospitals, and nursing homes, and healthcare providers that will help with the purchase of needed personal protective equipment. And we need to keep in mind too, there's been a precipitous drop in the revenues at the healthcare facilities, simply were telling people to avoid hospitals. You know, emergency room activity was down significantly. Elective surgery was being put off. And so there was a precipitous drop in revenues. But beyond that, we needed to target the $75 billion for these centers, these healthcare providers, so that personal protective equipment, the masks, the gowns, were available. The gloves that are necessary to protect the frontline workers and to avoid further spread of the virus. So a simple thing like protective equipment became a major obstacle in our efforts to combat COVID-19 simply because the supplies weren't there until we invoked the $75 billion targeted amount. And $25 billion for testing in the latest interim package. You know, first bill went on for testing. But then we found that we have to push the administration to not only implement the Defense Production Act, the DPA but to do it robustly, to make certain that you see this as a wartime situation where you convert your manufacturing sector to produce what we vitally need in order to respond to this COVID-19 challenge.

You know, Paul Tonko, so much of this has to do with money. And I know that the small businesses in your district, the 20th are really, really hurting. Is there any way you see immediately we could be more help to them than we have been?

To the to the business community itself?

 Yeah.

I think that, you know, again, what we have been doing with the with the CARES package, was putting together a paycheck protection program. And the first package called the CARES 1.0 really put together an investment that would be channeled to our small business community. And I think it was to the tune of 340 $9 billion dollars. That was out the door in 14 days. And so the treasury secretary, Mr. Mnuchin, came forward and said, we need additional money. And he said another $250 billion because of the robust quality of the program, but then it became apparent that some of the biggest players that didn't perhaps have the most urgent need for the money were the first to be addressed by the administration. And so the leadership of our House, through the voice of Speaker Pelosi, engaged and directed by the caucus said, look if you want that $250 billion, we want to put bells and whistles on this, we want strings attached. We want to make certain that some of the companies, the small business, some of the smallest businesses that don't have ongoing relationships with the banking groups, need to be protected. So you heard about all the hammering away on the House of the Democratic majority, for the delay of getting a bill passed. That was not to be an obstacle, it was not to be in the way of progress. It was to make certain that we've got the dollars to businesses that most required it. And so the result of a two week negotiating with the United States Senate, produced an interim package. They came up with an additional $310 billion, and $60 billion of which we insisted be channeled through community-based lenders to small banks and credit unions. That package also included this additional billion dollars in SBA disaster loan, and $10 billion in SBA disaster grants that enable small businesses to have flexibility. They can take a program where they keep their payroll intact, or they can take this loan that becomes a grant that enables them to invest in getting through the tough times. So it was, you know, not an easy thing to accomplish. We had to dig in, you know, grind in the heels, and insist on getting assistance with targeted focus on some of the most at risk for our businesses. But we got it done, and I'm proud of the role that our caucus played via the voice of Speaker Pelosi to make this happen in a way that I think now getting dollars to the small businesses in our community that are the life blood of you know they they're the heartbeat of a comeback for this economy as we get through this crisis.

Indeed that is true. So let me ask you this. So what is this pandemic showing us about the importance of broadband access? Not everybody has it. But an awful lot of people, schoolchildren, everybody else are totally dependent on it. Is there any way to make sure that we can do that we can do better providing for everybody?

Well, absolutely, I think with the reliance on technology, where people, students, or grade school students, high school students, were asked to, you know, learn from home. So this was about students learning through technology. It was about businesses conducting in there day to day routines, by technology. It was telemedicine, where people were resorting to that opportunity to be able to stay well and stay healthy. So basically what happened here was an understanding that technology can play a critical role for every element, every sector of the age spectrum, to assist in business. And so what we have here now is a driving force, a learning curve that has built everyone or at least many voices to advance broadband investment. And we recently released a measure by the by the House, by the majority, that will speak to a significant investment in broadband, that will enable us to make certain that areas that are not served or underserved, will get the investment they need, that will incorporate better mapping for the outcome of broadband. We're going to use some of the bills that I did that were rolled into the package that do inventory, because the investment in Washington from the federal government in broadband doesn't come from a single agency but a host of, a plethora of agencies. We want to make certain that we know exactly how those dollars have been spent, where the need might be in the geography format of this country, and make sure that we get that done because it became very apparent that it's an essential. It's somewhat like the, you know, the whole wiring of the country for telephone service in the 1930s. It became our modern day essential service that will be responded to by this broadband packet.

And Paul Tonko, we thank you. Paul Tonko of the 20th congressional district is special friend of WAMC’s, and of mine. We so appreciate you being here. Paul, when we come back, the next time, I'm going to ask you the deep question.

Okay. My pleasure.