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Local representatives predict easy votes on state’s COVID-19 bills

By Liz Moomey

The N.C. General Assembly goes into session Tuesday and will consider multiple bills to provide relief from those directly and indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bills come from working groups in the N.C. House that involved input from local representatives. Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, co-chaired the Economic Support Working Group, and Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, was a member of the group. Rep. Wayne Sasser, a Republican from Stanly County, was a member of the Health Care Working Group bringing his expertise as a pharmacist.

On Tuesday, the Economic Support Working Group finalized a bill to appropriate $75 million to the Golden Leaf Foundation to provide emergency bridge loan funding for small businesses impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. The week prior, the working group finished a bill that would waive interest on filing taxes by the new July 15 deadline, allow employers to file for unemployment insurance benefits on behalf of their employees and affirms flexibility in applying for benefits — formalizing the governor’s executive order.

“The product that we have sent forward, which is probably five bills in two, is good, and we had an excellent vote coming out of committee,” Howard said.

The longtime legislator said she is satisfied with the end result, adding the working group members knew what their responsibility was, stayed focused and were able to get their work done quickly.

Howard said she sees the bills passing in the House easily, especially because of the bipartisan nature of the working groups. She is unsure of the Senate response.

Howard said she doesn’t want there to be amendments proposed and discussed because it will require more time spent in committee or on the floor.

“I’m just hoping we can get in and get out,” she said.

In his work, Sasser presented needs to allow pharmacists to administer COVID vaccines once developed, antibody testing, dispense naloxone and help manage chronic diseases. He also wanted legislation to ensure drugs can be mailed to patients during the pandemic. The final product that will be presented does include pharmacists administering COVID-19 and antibodies tests. In an interview Friday, Sasser said he is working on an amendment. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services does allow for pharmacists to administer both tests but he wanted some oversight at the state level.

Sasser, though, said he was satisfied with the two bills that came out of the working group.

One of the bills about which Sasser was pleased will create a state stockpile of personal protective equipment, provide support to health care provides to respond to COVID-19, increase flexibility of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and increase access to care through telehealth. The second bill provides funding for health care needs during the pandemic, including personal protective equipment funding, relief to hospitals and research.

“We got a lot of people to test and see what’s going on to get this state back to work,” Sasser said.

Sasser said he worked on securing $1.5 million for MedAssist, which will offset prescription costs for those in the gap between Medicaid and being uninsured. There is also funding for naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, to help with an increase of overdoses and deaths, like he’s seen in Stanly.

The bill also includes the ability to mail prescriptions, which currently isn’t available to 90 percent of North Carolina’s patients. The working group had hesitations, but Sasser said this is a temporary solution and he has proposed permanent legislation to be later discussed.

During Thursday’s meeting, several Health Care Working Group members said the bills were phase one and there would likely be another one. There hasn’t yet been in-depth discussion about the next phase.

“Everybody is so focused hard on everybody getting this stuff done so we can vote on it next week,” Sasser said.

Howard said the working group will continue to meet after the bill is passed.

“It’s a start,” Howard said. “Is it all and everything? No, it’s not and there will be lots and lots of other things as time moves forward that we realize we need to do.”

When the working groups were formed, Rowan County’s Rep. Warren said he had concerns about members using it as an opportunity to push non-COVID-19 related issues that they weren’t able to accomplish in a previous session.

“I didn’t want see policy changes that weren’t relative to COVID-19 or things that were put into place that were permanent using COVID-19 as an excuse,” he said.

Warren recommended constituents continue to contact their representatives in case there is anything the General Assembly has overlooked.

“I just want to reassure folks the General Assembly is looking it from every possible angle, love the input and we’ll get through this together,” Warren said.

The House and Senate both convene at noon Tuesday.

Liz Moomey is a reporter for the Salisbury Post. Email liz.moomey@salisburypost.com.