Massive Relief Bill Would Triple Military Hospital Beds, Fund Guard Deployments

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Louisiana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen test first responders for COVID-19.
Louisiana National Guard Soldiers and Airmen test first responders for COVID-19 infections at Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 20, 2020. (U.S. National Guard/Staff Sgt. Josiah Pugh)

As part of a proposed sweeping relief package to respond to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers would give the Pentagon $10.5 billion to keep National Guardsmen deployed, provide benefits for military families and retirees, and advance military vaccine research programs as cases continue spreading across the U.S.

The emergency bill, known as "The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act," is expected to be approved Wednesday. The measure would give the Defense Department $1.5 billion to open expeditionary military hospitals as experts warn bed space will fall short of demand as COVID-19 cases get worse. Several governors have called for the Pentagon to dispatch the Army Corps of Engineers to get started on such projects.

The move would triple the number of hospital beds from the 4,300 currently available in military treatment facilities, a summary text of the bill states.

The relief measure would also provide $1.4 billion in funding to keep up to 20,000 guardsmen activated in their states -- under direction from their governors -- for the next six months.

Related: Coronavirus Relief Bill Contains Nearly $20 Billion for Veterans

The Defense Department in recent weeks has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with other agencies, to provide Air and Army National Guard personnel in multiple states to assist in coronavirus response efforts. As of Wednesday, roughly 10,700 Guard personnel were on duty in all 50 states and three territories.

The plan also calls for $1 billion to fund the Defense Production Act, which allows the department to invest in manufacturing capabilities to produce in-demand medical and personal protective equipment for health care workers. Doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus fight have been pleading for more masks, gloves and other materials needed to treat patients with the highly contagious virus.

The bill would also give $141 million to the Coast Guard to activate reservists to support information technology and remote-access needs, the summary states. Much of the government workforce and military are now working remotely to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

Many service members and their families are also likely to qualify for new recovery rebates that will be sent to individuals as part of the package. Individuals who earn less than $75,000 annually could be eligible for a $1,200 check from the government. Couples who file their taxes jointly and earn less than $150,000 combined would receive $2,400.

Families with children could also qualify for another $500 per child, according to the bill.

Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said lawmakers' response to the coronavirus crisis will come in phases.

"Today our response is providing direct assistance to the American people, injecting new resources where they are needed most, and moving our country a step closer to emerging from this crisis stronger than we were before," he said.

In a measure likely added to the bill by the Democrats, there's a provision that prohibits any of the money being provided to the Defense Department in the coronavirus fight from being diverted to pay for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Billions were pulled from Defense Department projects earlier this year as the Trump administration continues its pledge to put barriers along the southwest border.

The Senate bill also includes nearly $20 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure veterans' health care needs aren't interrupted by the pandemic.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this story.

Read more: Meet the Army Lieutenant Racing to Develop a Coronavirus Vaccine

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