U.S. health insurers to waive some fees, extend coronavirus coverage, Pence says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Private U.S. health insurers agreed to extend coronavirus treatment coverage in all of their plans and waive co-payment fees for testing, Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday, as the White House came under growing pressure to help those hurt by the outbreak.

The number of cases of the highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the virus has risen steadily in the United States this week, stoking concerns of a health and economic crisis that could pummel workers and companies.

“We want the American people to know that they are covered with private insurance, they are covered with Medicare and Medicaid,” Pence said at a White House meeting with health executives, referring to the government-funded programs for Americans over age 65 and the poor.

Pence did not mention the millions of uninsured Americans.

The vice president, who is heading the government’s response to the outbreak, said more than 1 million test kits for the coronavirus were in the field and that 4 million more were going out this week. “We want people to get tested,” he said.

Health officials in New York state and other parts of the country hard hit by the coronavirus have complained about a shortage of testing capacity.

The White House also has come under attack for a lack of epidemic preparation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and early problems with their coronavirus test kits that delayed confirmation of results.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the country was “far behind” in testing people for the new coronavirus and President Donald Trump should make ramping up that capability his highest priority.

“This is a healthcare crisis, it demands a healthcare solution,” Schumer said on the floor of the Senate as lawmakers considered measures to protect the economy from a sharp contraction due to the outbreak.

Trump was heading to Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon to discuss what action should be taken. During the White House meeting he said the administration intended to also help airlines and the cruise line industry.

U.S. coronavirus cases have climbed to 791 and there have been 27 deaths, most of them in Washington state, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. That tally did not include a death reported in New Jersey on Tuesday, the state’s first.

After U.S. stock indexes suffered the biggest one-day sell-off since 2008 on Monday, Trump said his administration would take “major” steps to gird the economy and discuss a possible payroll tax cut with congressional Republicans.

A payroll tax cut could encourage consumer spending and help households that might otherwise struggle to make rent and mortgage payments on time, or pay medical bills if family members’ work hours are reduced during the outbreak.

While some Trump administration officials have broached the idea of targeted tax relief to help airlines and other industries hurt by the outbreak, Democrats are pushing for paid sick leave and other measures to protect workers.

“Congress needs to be taking steps to make sure families who have to take time off work do not fall into financial ruin. This is not the time to bail out industry,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Major U.S. stock indexes were trading higher on Tuesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks next to Vice President Mike Pence during a coronavirus briefing with health insurers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis


More than 116,000 people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide with over 4,000 deaths since it surfaced in China late last year, according to the World Health Organization. It has spread to more than 100 nations.

Italy, which has the highest death toll outside of China, has put its entire population of 60 million on virtual lockdown, banning public gatherings and suspending sporting events..

At least 35 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have reported infections of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus that can lead to pneumonia.

Washington state has been hardest hit, with a nursing home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland accounting for the bulk of the state’s 22 confirmed deaths.

In California, the Grand Princess cruise ship docked at the Port of Oakland on Monday and began offloading its 2,400 passengers, most of whom will go into quarantine at military bases. The vessel was barred from returning to San Francisco last week due to a coronavirus outbreak on board.

California and New York each have more than 140 confirmed cases. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said schools and businesses in a coronavirus “hot zone” in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb, would close for two weeks.

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper on Tuesday declared a state of emergency in his state, which has reported seven presumptive cases.

As the outbreak spreads, daily life in United States has been increasingly disrupted, with concerts and conferences canceled, and universities telling students to stay home and take classes online.

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“Not every community has an outbreak going on right now, but people should know that this is likely to get worse before it gets better,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

U.S. health officials have urged older people, especially those with chronic medical concerns, to avoid big social gatherings, cruise ships and airline flights.

Several Republican lawmakers have gone into self-quarantine after being in contact with a person at a conference who later tested positive for coronavirus.

Reporting by Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Lisa Lambert in Washington and Shubham Kalia in Bengaluru; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Bill Berkrot

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