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How the COVID-19 Relief Bill Helps Older Adults and People with Disabilities

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The recent COVID-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan (ARP), makes important changes to help older adults, people with disabilities, and families amid the pandemic and its economic fallout. The $1.9 trillion package signed into law by President Biden includes several of the Medicare Rights Center’s priorities and related reforms that will ease health care access and affordability, strengthen economic security, and advance equity. Key provisions include:

Medicaid HCBS. The ARP provides much-needed funding for Medicaid home and community-based services (HCBS), boosting the federal government’s matching rate by 10% for one year (April 1, 2021 through March 31, 2022). States must maintain their current HCBS spending to qualify for the enhanced funds and can use the additional dollars in a variety of ways—specifically, to “implement, or supplement the implementation of, one or more activities to enhance, expand, or strengthen” Medicaid HCBS. As the Kaiser Family Foundation explains, “examples of initiatives that states might fund include bolstering the workforce by supporting direct care workers, family caregivers, and/or HCBS providers adversely affected by the pandemic; offering services to address the pandemic’s impact on seniors and people with disabilities; and/or increasing the number of people receiving HCBS.”

Community Living Programs. The ARP further supports community living by bolstering initiatives that can help people with Medicare maintain their health and independence, such as those authorized by the Older Americans Act, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, housing supports and homelessness prevention, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and other nutrition programs.

Nursing Homes. To improve nursing home care and resident rights, the ARP funds state strike teams to assist with clinical care, infection control, and staffing. It also directs Quality Improvement Organizations to develop and distribute protocols to help prevent and mitigate COVID-19, allocates additional funding to state long-term care ombudsman programs, and funds the Elder Justice Act through 2022.

Economic Stimulus. The ARP authorizes another round of economic relief payments. People with adjusted gross incomes (AGI) up to $75,000 ($150,000 for couples) are eligible for the full $1,400 ($2,800 for couples) plus $1,400 for each dependent, including adults. This is an important change from the previous dependent payments, which were limited to children. The stimulus amount phases out more quickly than under previous bills, reaching zero for those with incomes above $80,000 ($160,000 for couples).

Financial Assistance. Separately, the law expands the child tax credit, allowing qualifying families and grandfamilies to receive up to $3,000 per child aged 6-17 and $3,600 per child under 6. Beginning in 2021, it also increases the maximum earned income tax credit from $530 to $1,500 for childless workers up to age 64 and raises the income limit for the credit from $16,000 to approximately $21,000.

Employment Supports. The ARP extends the $300 per week federal increase to unemployment benefits through September 6, 2021, and continues the paid leave tax credit through September 30, 2021, increasing the total wages an employer can claim (from $10,000 to $12,000 per employee).

The Medicare Rights Center welcomes these improvements, and urges additional reforms to help older adults, people with disabilities, and their families obtain needed health and economic supports during the pandemic and beyond. Most urgently, this includes easing and expediting Medicare enrollment and ensuring access to affordable COVID-19 care, treatment, and vaccines. We look forward to continuing to work with Congress and the administration to advance these important goals.

Read more about Medicare priorities to combat COVID-19:

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