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McConnell says stimulus deal could take ‘weeks,’ putting millions of people with expiring jobless aid in limbo

WASHINGTON — With days to go before enhanced jobless benefits expire, the White House and Senate Republicans are struggling to design a way to scale back the program without overwhelming state unemployment agencies and imperiling aid to more than 20 million Americans.

The hangup has led to an abrupt delay in the introduction of the GOP’s $1 trillion stimulus package. The White House and Democrats have said they want a deal by the end of the month, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested Friday it could take several weeks to reach an agreement, a timeline that could leave many unemployed Americans severely exposed.

“Hopefully we can come together behind some package we can agree on in the next few weeks,” McConnell said at an event in Ashland.

Part of the hangup stems from a push by administration officials and GOP lawmakers to cut — but not completely eliminate — a $600 weekly payment of enhanced federal unemployment benefits. The White House and GOP are not in agreement about how to do this, and talks remain highly contentious. They are hoping to release a proposal early next week.

“We realize there are a lot of hardworking Americans because of COVID (who) still won’t have jobs,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told reporters Thursday.

After convulsing in March and April when the pandemic shut down large parts of the United States, the economy showed signs of regaining its footing before sliding again in recent weeks. Numerous stimulus programs appear to be wearing off and the pace of layoffs has picked up again. Layoffs that many Americans thought would be temporary have dragged on and become permanent particularly as new cases of the virus spike across the United States.

This has put enormous pressure on state unemployment programs, which typically pay out about 45% of a worker’s prior wages. In March, Congress approved the $600-per-week emergency bonus for every unemployed worker on top of that traditional payment, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to newly jobless Americans as the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

That federal benefit, currently being received by more than 20 million people, is set to expire at the end of this month. And it comes at a time when a federal eviction moratorium is also ending, a dynamic that could put enormous pressure on cash-strapped families.

In practice, the jobless benefit lapse means that millions of workers are seeing their last enhanced benefit payment this week.

In recent days, senior congressional Republicans and Mnuchin have discussed replacing this universal federal bonus with one tied to workers’ income before their job was lost. Instead of sending a $600-per-week bonus to every unemployed person, under this plan the federal government would provide a bonus amounting to about half of the existing state bonus, according to three senior GOP officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe fast-moving and internal deliberations.

Mnuchin and President Donald Trump have said publicly that they want to have the new payments replace roughly “70%” of a worker’s prior income. This would represent a combination of the nearly 50% state contribution of a worker’s prior income plus an additional 25% kicked in by the federal government. Republican lawmakers have discussed extending the flat payment at about $200-per-week instead of $600 to give the states time to adjust to the new formula and system.

“We are going to extend it on the basis of wage replacement — it’s approximately at 70% of wage replacement,” Mnuchin told reporters Thursday about the GOP’s proposed plan.

Other leading Republican lawmakers have argued for cutting the $600-per-week bonus down to $200 per week, these people said, with one possibility being that this amount slowly phases out over time. These GOP officials have insisted that targeted wage replacement could prove too difficult for the states to implement.

One Senate Republican aide close to the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that a $200 flat payment represented the party’s “default” position, with additional funding included to help states upgrade their unemployment systems. The aide downplayed the odds of the GOP approving the more complicated replacement instead of the $200-per-week extension.

The issue has helped delay the introduction of the $1 trillion stimulus package McConnell had planned to release earlier this week. Republicans debated last-minute changes to the unemployment insurance section of the proposal, according to the three people aware of the deliberations.

The proposed legislation could now come Monday, a lag that has prompted scorching criticism from congressional Democrats who have been demanding action for months. Congress has not passed any coronavirus relief legislation since approving four bipartisan bills in March and April that pumped around $3 trillion into the economy. McConnell wanted to wait and see how the unemployment benefits and other programs approved in that unprecedented stimulus effort played out before taking additional action.

“This weekend, millions of Americans will lose their unemployment insurance, will be at risk of being evicted from their homes, and could be laid off by state and local government, and there is only one reason: Republicans have been dithering for months while America’s crisis deepens,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a joint statement Friday.

If adopted, the new unemployment plan could complicate negotiations with congressional Democrats, who favor extending the $600 weekly payment through January. And it’s unclear if balky state processing systems would have the bandwidth to implement a complicated new formula on such short notice.

“We’re dealing with the mechanical issues associated with that,” Mnuchin told reporters about the wage replacement plan.

The proposal would, in key respects, meet the conflicting political and economic pressures bearing down on the GOP and White House as the unemployment deadline looms for millions of Americans months away from Election Day.

Senate Republicans and White House officials have been clear that they are not willing to extend the $600-per-week benefit, which conservatives and many business organizations say encourages people to stay home rather than work. Many economists dispute this notion. Senior Republicans have also said they do not want additional federal unemployment benefits to go away entirely, acknowledging that some additional federal help should still be provided to those made jobless during the pandemic. The benefits are politically popular, with a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll finding close to 60% of Americans supporting their extension.

“We need to make sure unemployment insurance is continued,” McConnell said Friday. “There is a controversy, however, over whether the provision in the previous measure that allowed people to make more money staying at home than going back to work was a good idea. That’s not going to be our recommendation. But I do think basic unemployment insurance — fundamentally handled by the states but backed up by us — will be a part of” the GOP package.

Trump and Mnuchin have characterized their proposed solution, replacing “70%” of a worker’s prior income, as a reasonable middle ground. At his White House news briefing Tuesday, Trump expressed ambivalence about the benefit but said it would be partially extended.

“The employers are having a hard time getting (employees) back to work … I was against that original decision, but they did that. It still worked out well because it gave people a lifeline, a real lifeline. Now we’re doing it again,” the president said. “They’re thinking about doing 70% of the amount. The amount would be the same, but doing it in a little bit smaller initial amounts.”

Congressional Democrats and many economists say the current benefit should be extended in full to prevent a crucial source of economic stimulus from disappearing from an already wobbly economic recovery.

Given the difficulty of reaching a deal with Democrats before the existing benefits expire, Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on Thursday floated a stand-alone extension of unemployment provisions as part of a package with school funding and a type of lawsuit shield to make it harder for employees to sue their employers if they become sick.

Senior lawmakers in both parties oppose this piecemeal approach, but if they are unable to reach a deal, they might be forced to pass some type of stand-alone benefit extension next week.

In March, lawmakers initially discussed increasing unemployment benefits so they would represent 100% of a worker’s prior income. Congress ultimately abandoned the idea in favor of the universal $600 bonus in part because Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia warned that the nation’s unemployment systems could not handle the complexity of matching every individual’s unemployment benefits to his or her prior income, according to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who led those negotiations.

“Scalia said, ‘It can’t be done,’” Wyden said in an interview. “We have not seen a single piece of paper describing how this would be administered without the downsides Scalia pointed out months ago.”

Mnuchin acknowledged the technical challenges posed by converting from one system to another when addressing reporters Thursday. He said the matter was being discussed with state unemployment offices. “Let me just say, different states are in different places,” Mnuchin said. “Some states can implement this quickly. Some states will take time.”

Some experts are skeptical. State unemployment offices have been badly overwhelmed by the unprecedented surge in claims, and there were another 1.4 million claims last week. Thousands of the newly jobless have struggled for months to obtain their benefits, and in some states, have camped outside unemployment offices overnight to be first in line for help.

The $600-per-week bonus was chosen for its simplicity compared to targeted, individual wage replacement — but it has proven tremendously difficult for states to implement as the nation’s unemployment rate spiked to 15% before falling slightly to 11%.

“You’re asking states to overhaul their insurance systems in the middle of a pandemic, when they’re already overloaded. What happens if states shift to a new system and they dump beneficiaries and miss payments because of an error?” said Ernie Tedeschi, who served as an economist in the Treasury Department under the Obama administration. “It’s too complicated.”

Andrew Stettner, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said states would do their best but that many would struggle to pull off the change. “The state (unemployment insurance) systems are like a house built on sticks and you’re throwing a match onto them,” he said. Stettner added it could prove difficult for the Labor Department to figure out how to target payments for every state to reflect 70% of wages for every person.

White House and GOP officials have discussed a transition period that would give states time to figure out how to implement the reduction in benefits. Under this scenario, Republicans could first extend the benefit at a lower amount of around $200 per week instead of $600, continuing the existing flat payment at a reduced level. Democrats would be sure to demand a higher figure.

The $200 bonus, combined with state benefits, would amount to close to 70% of a typical worker’s prior income, although under the flat amount there would be significant variation, as some would receive more than prior income and some would receive less.

“There’s a way to extend this so the majority of people will get paid the 70% immediately,” Mnuchin said. Meadows added that the $1,200 stimulus payments expected to be included in the package would help make up the difference for Americans for whom the extension does not amount to 70% of prior income.

At the end of a period that may last two months, one senior GOP congressional official said, the automatic payment would go away and be replaced by the more targeted benefit.

“After two months, the states — at least most states; I think pretty much all states — say they could convert to the feds doing a percentage of the state benefit,” said the GOP official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Do your state calculation, and then the (federal government) will do 50% on top of that.”

Whether the states will be able to pull off the change in a way that protects beneficiaries remains to be seen. The National Association of State Workforce Agencies recently said that it would take one to four weeks for most states even to change the bonus amount from $600 to some other amount, according to Wyden’s office.


News
She’s a veteran who killed seven other veterans at a West Virginia hospital. Their families want to know why.

REYNOLDSVILLE, W.Va. — To her neighbor in the quiet, leafy hollow where Reta Mays returned after her overnight shift at the Veterans Affairs hospital nearby, Mays seemed like the kind of person you’d want living next door. She was friendly, waved hello and let Tina Hickman walk her dogs on her farm.

Even after rumors spread that the nursing assistant injected a half dozen veterans with lethal doses of insulin, Hickman struggled to believe Mays could be responsible. One of the men was Hickman’s grandfather, an 84-year-old Army veteran who served in the Korean War.

Now, a week after Hickman watched on Zoom as Mays wept in federal court, confessing to the crimes, she is angry and wonders what made her do it. “I kind of didn’t believe it, because I talked to her all the time,” Hickman told The Washington Post. “I would like to know why.”

Mays, 46, a veteran of the Iraq War, pleaded guilty last week to seven counts of second-degree murder and one count of assault with the intent to commit an eighth murder. But if families of the victims hoped Mays’ plea would bring them certainty, that remains elusive.

Why Mays injected the elderly veterans with deadly doses of insulin in the span of nearly a year, leading to their deaths from severe hypoglycemia or low blood sugar, remains an unanswered question.

Before working at the VA hospital in Clarksburg, Mays held several low-paying jobs as a jail guard and caregiver, and had a troubled family life, with a husband in prison as a sex offender. But she was more savvy than she let on to hospital colleagues, appearing eager to please while constructing an elaborate scheme to kill that eluded hospital officials for almost a year.

Mays provided a potential clue at her plea hearing, telling the judge she was taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder. Prosecutors expect her defense team to argue at sentencing that either a trauma in her background or her PTSD led her to carry out the murders.

Mays’ attorneys declined to comment. One of them, David Hoose, is a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer who represented a nurse convicted nearly 20 years ago of injecting four men with lethal doses of epinephrine at the VA hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Of all the deaths, the killing of Hickman’s grandfather, Archie Edgell, seems particularly cruel in that Mays apparently tried to kill him twice, according to the plea agreement.

In March 2018, Edgell arrived at the VA for an examination that would determine whether he should move to a nursing home for dementia, according to Dino Colombo, an attorney for the Edgell family.

Some time during her rounds on the graveyard shift, Mays injected Edgell with enough insulin to cause his glucose levels to plummet, according to Mays’ plea agreement.

Then the next night, the plea agreement said, Mays injected Edgell a second time, causing the same reaction. But this time, just days after walking into the hospital, Edgell died. An autopsy later found four injection sites on his body.

Whatever her motive, Mays watched the veterans after she gave them insulin and sat by their bedsides as their organs shut down, said an investigator who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The deaths were drawn out over a period of several hours to a few weeks.

When doctors arrived the next morning to find the patients’ blood sugar levels had plummeted, Mays would often linger in the room as they tried to counteract the drug’s effects, a health care worker recalled, and would overhear physicians’ conversations with family members.

Hickman wonders whether her grandmother saw the signs. Frances Edgell, Archie’s wife of 62 years, hardly left his side at the hospital. She permitted authorities to exhume her husband’s body, but she died a few months later of what the family is certain was a broken heart.

School announcements in newspaper archives show Mays was a good student at schools in Maryland and Delaware. She attended Glenville State College in West Virginia from fall 1993 to spring 1994, majored in accounting and did not graduate, a spokesman for the college said.

Mays joined the West Virginia Army National Guard about six months after 9/11. She deployed to Iraq in 2003, joining about 500 other West Virginians in the 1092nd Engineer Battalion, where she was a chemical equipment repairer.

Mike Greaver, a Clarksburg resident who was in the same unit, said he hardly saw Mays in Iraq, but about six months into their service, they were among a handful of West Virginians who flew back to the United States for a week of leave. Thriving in a combat unit of mostly men required a degree of toughness that Mays seemed to embrace. “She was good around people,” said Greaver, 52.

Her final duty assignment was with the Guard’s 115th Engineer Company in Clarksburg, where Mays attended unit functions with her family, including her husband, Gordon, whom Greaver remembered as the goofy but hardworking custodian there. Greaver never knew Reta Mays to skip drill. She was discharged from the Guard in October 2006 under good terms.

“I would have never dreamt she was capable of doing something like this,” Greaver said. “This is Jekyll and Hyde if I ever did see it.”

Mays worked as a correctional officer at the North Central Regional Jail from 2005 to 2012. She was named in a 2013 lawsuit in which an inmate accused her and other correctional officers of abuse. The inmate claimed that Mays helped to restrain him and kicked him before another guard “stomped” his head.

When he awoke, the lawsuit continues, Mays “bent over him, spit in his face and said ‘(h)ow do you like that mother f------’ and ‘you ain’t that tough now are you?’” The defendants denied all allegations of excessive force and retaliation, and a federal judge dismissed the inmate’s lawsuit.

Before she was hired by the VA hospital in 2015, Mays worked for ResCare, a group home for adults with disabilities in Clarksburg, where she rose in three years from entry-level caregiver to residential manager, supervising 15 employees, according to a spokesperson for ResCare’s parent company in Kentucky. The company received no official complaints during her tenure, and she left in good standing, the spokesperson said.

The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center is one of the biggest employers in Clarksburg, a city of 15,000 about four hours west of Washington. In the early part of the 20th century, immigrants were drawn to the town and its environs for work in the coal and glass industries. Now people come for jobs at an FBI center and in hospitals. The town, like many across Appalachia, faces a cascading set of hardships related to the opioid crisis.

Greaver remembers seeing Mays working at the hospital, wearing a blue and gold vest, shuttling patients from one part of the hospital to another. “It’s an honor for a veteran to get hired there,” he said.

On the job at VA, taking patients’ vital signs and glucose levels and in other caregiving tasks, Mays was eager to please, said the health care worker who worked with her. “She absolutely fooled me,” the employee said. “I looked at her and thought, ‘She wants to be a go-getter.’ She was that helpful and involved.”

In the hospital setting, Mays came across as unsophisticated, with an almost childlike affect, often speaking with a high-pitched voice that might have given co-workers a mistaken impression that she was naive, the health care worker said.

Her behavior was just the opposite, said the worker and the investigator. She figured out a crucial technology weakness that helped allow her crimes go undetected for so long, a faulty software system that was erratic in downloading patients’ glucose readings into their laboratory charts for their doctors to check in the morning.

“She took advantage of the fact that the test results would not be in the system,” the health care worker said. After Mays’ firing in 2019, the software was fixed.

After several patients died on her watch, some of Mays’ colleagues would send each other text messages about the eerie coincidence that another patient was lost while she was working, two employees said. But they didn’t put the pieces together.

Outside of work, Mays was a longtime member of Monroe Chapel United Methodist, a one-room country church in a cow pasture about 20 minutes outside Clarksburg.

Pastor Nathan Weaver said Mays had family members in the congregation, but she came alone in the two years he has served there, though her attendance was irregular. In his few conversations with her, Weaver said Mays seemed friendly and devoted to her family.

Monroe Chapel is affiliated with another nearby church and members from each church know one another. Among them are Mays’ relatives and family members of her victims, another small-town reality that makes healing uniquely challenging.

“Our community is grieving deeply with those who lost their loved ones,” Weaver said. “We are navigating many emotions: anger, surprise and profound loss, to name a few.”

At an in-person worship service the Sunday after Mays’ plea, Weaver shared a brief statement with his congregation: “Our hearts are hurting from the news we received this week. Our deepest condolences and prayers go out to the families of the victims. We are here for Reta’s family, who are navigating this incredibly painful situation.”

Weaver said he has been counseling members of the Mays family on the phone.

Mays has two adult sons. Both declined to comment. A stepson could not be reached. Her father declined to comment.

Mays’ husband, Gordon, who was convicted in 2012 of accessing child pornography, is serving a year-long sentence in federal prison for failing to register as a sex offender in West Virginia.

In October 2007, the family suffered two house fires at a previous residence within a few days of each other. Gary Schlag, a retired adjuster for Nationwide Insurance who handled a claim from Mays and her husband, said the first was determined to be an electrical fire that started on the porch; the second was ruled arson.

The Mays family sued Nationwide and Schlag, alleging the company used “unscrupulous delay tactics” to avoid making payments. The fire destroyed the home. The suit settled out of court with a confidentiality agreement. Attorneys for the Mays family declined to comment.

Mays was fired from her job at the VA hospital in 2018, several months after being removed from patient care, after the hospital discovered she had lied about her qualifications on her resume.

The families are angry at hospital leaders for not detecting a pattern in the deaths earlier. Two nursing managers were temporarily reassigned to administrative roles and a top administrator was placed on paid leave, where she remains, and is not expected to return, two employees said.

The hospital has placed tighter controls over insulin and other high-risk drugs, secured medicine carts and supply rooms on Ward 3A that were left widely accessible and required better accounting of drugs by its pharmacy staff.

But neither hospital leaders nor VA’s central office in Washington have undertaken a broad review to determine whether failures in hospital policy, operations or staffing played a role in why the deaths were undetected for almost a year.

“They act like nothing’s happened here,” said Colombo, the Edgell family’s attorney. “They hired a serial killer who killed seven veterans.”

Wesley Walls, a hospital spokesman, said in a statement that once the hospital discovered a pattern in the deaths in 2018, it “put additional safeguards in place, which continue to include medical chart audits, checks and balances within our pharmacy quality assurance processes and quality management reviews.”

Walls added, “The notion that policies and protocols can unfailingly stop those intent on committing crimes strains credulity.”

The VA Office of the Inspector General regularly examines health care facilities but will investigate further, said Inspector General Michael J. Missal. He said the effort has been hamstrung by hospital restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Several family members of the victims said VA still owes them answers.

“My dad loved that system,” Melanie Proctor, whose father, Felix McDermott, was killed by Mays in April 2018, said in an interview. She says she wants hospital leaders to tell her why it took so long for someone to figure out why so many veterans were dying of low blood sugar.

“You feel bad going after them,” Proctor said, “but if you don’t want to tell me what you’re doing to fix this so this never happens to anyone else, you’re stuck with me going after you.”


White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Jim Carroll speaks after a closed-press roundtable briefing with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, federal, state, and local officials and law enforcement on efforts in Boyd County to combat the opioid and substance abuse epidemic on Friday, July 24, 2020, at the Ashland Police Department.


News
Governor gives OK for colleges in WV to reopen

HUNTINGTON — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has issued an executive order allowing the state’s public and private colleges and universities to reopen for the fall semester.

Justice issued the order Friday during his daily press briefing.

The order does not set a specific reopening date, which means each school can reopen on its preferred time frame.

The order was issued following a virtual meeting Justice had with the state’s public and private college and university presidents to discuss reopening plans as schools work to address the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which forced many of them to shift classes to an online format in the spring.

In June, Marshall University’s board of governors approved the university’s return-to-campus plan, which outlines the steps the university will take to keep students and employees safe during the pandemic.

The university is implementing a revised academic plan that features a mix of face-to-face classes, online classes and hybrid settings. The university’s academic calendar also has been adjusted to minimize travel to and from campus once the fall and spring semesters begin, while maintaining the required number of instructional days.

Classes are scheduled to begin Aug. 24, with students completing the semester online after the Thanksgiving break.

Classrooms will be limited to 50% capacity and professors will teach behind plexiglass. All students and employees will be required to wear face masks or coverings in buildings.

Students living on campus will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. Students and staff will also be able to take a daily health assessment.

Statewide, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources reported 145 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, for a total of 5,695. The number of deaths remained at 103.

The Cabell-Huntington Health Department on Friday reported 243 cases, with 91 active. There have been 159 recovered cases and two deaths.

Cases per county (case confirmed by lab test/probable case) are: Barbour (28/0), Berkeley (585/19), Boone (69/0), Braxton (8/0), Brooke (42/1), Cabell (248/9), Calhoun (5/0), Clay (17/0), Fayette (111/0), Gilmer (14/0), Grant (37/1), Greenbrier (81/0), Hampshire (55/0), Hancock (80/4), Hardy (49/1), Harrison (152/1), Jackson (153/0), Jefferson (273 /5), Kanawha (641/12), Lewis (24/1), Lincoln (36/2), Logan (66/0), Marion (148/4), Marshall (94/1), Mason (38/0), McDowell (13/1), Mercer (79/0), Mineral (87/2), Mingo (79/2), Monongalia (797/15), Monroe (17/1), Morgan (24/1), Nicholas (22/1), Ohio (217/0), Pendleton (27/1), Pleasants (6/1), Pocahontas (39/1), Preston (94/21), Putnam (132/1), Raleigh (119/4), Randolph (201 /4), Ritchie (3/0), Roane (12/0), Summers (4/0), Taylor (37/1), Tucker (8/0), Tyler (11/0), Upshur (33/2), Wayne (173/2), Webster (3/0), Wetzel (41/0), Wirt (6/0), Wood (209/11) and Wyoming (15/0).

In Ohio, the Lawrence County Health Department reported nine new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, for a total of 194. Of those cases, 102 are out of isolation. There have been no virus-related deaths in the county.

Statewide, there were 81,746 cases as of 2 p.m. Friday, with 3,297 deaths.

In Kentucky, the Ashland-Boyd County Health Department reported three new cases of COVID-19 on Friday — an 82-year-old man in hospital isolation, a 36-year-old woman isolating at home and a 24-year-old man, also isolating at home.

Boyd County has reported a total of 136 cases, with 93 recovered. There have been three deaths.

Statewide, there were 797 new cases of COVID-19 reported Friday, representing the second-highest daily total of new cases announced since the state’s first case in March. The state has had a total of 25,931 cases, with at least 7,396 recovered.

There were also seven new deaths reported Friday, for a total of 691.

The U.S. has now topped 4 million cases of COVID-19, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting 4,024,492 cases Friday. There have been 143,868 deaths related to the virus.

The Associated Press reports that for most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.