Public Policy News – April 2020
Federal efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic have ranged from agencies providing regulatory relief to Congress passing legislation to support unemployment insurance, payments to hospitals, and other disaster relief efforts. The CSWE Public Policy Initiative (PPI) has developed several proposals to ensure that social work students, faculty members, practitioners, and the communities they serve receive resources to address current and future needs related to COVID-19. Those efforts are reflected in a letter to policymakers that includes the following priorities:
- Aid for students and institutions
- Investments in the interprofessional health-care workforce, especially during times of great demand
- Support for mental and behavioral health through programs such as the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training and the Mental and Substance Use Disorders Workforce Training Demonstration
- Support for research and social justice efforts
Additionally, the CSWE PPI has been working with the Health Professions and Nursing Education Coalition to promote investments in critical programs that support schools of social work and social work students.
The CSWE Public Policy Initiative continues to pursue its advocacy strategy for the fiscal year (FY) 2021 appropriations process by submitting funding requests to congressional champions and advocating for programs important to social work, especially during times of great demand.
Programs of importance to CSWE that are funded through congressional appropriations include the Minority Fellowship Program, the Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training program, the Scholarships for Disadvantaged Students program, and the Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program. Through our annual efforts, CSWE also expressed support for increased funding for programs that help low-income students, such as the Pell Grant and Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need programs, and urged members of Congress to support the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
Members of Congress have returned to their districts because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and in-person hearings and markups on FY 2021 appropriations bills have been delayed or cancelled. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) recently announced that the House of Representatives would not return to Washington until at least May 5, 2020.
CSWE and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) submitted a joint response to a request for input from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on the NIH-wide strategic plan for fiscal years 2021–2025. CSWE and SSWR support the NIH’s cross-cutting themes to improve women’s and minority health, reduce health disparities, address public health challenges across the lifespan, and promote collaborative science.
Throughout the response, CSWE and SSWR encouraged ways NIH can incorporate social work research and social workers into critical scientific research. The response emphasized that social workers and social work researchers can help NIH achieve some of the goals laid out in NIH’s proposed research objectives by employing the social and behavioral perspectives used in social work research. This, in turn, could lead to better research outcomes that better reflect human behavior.
One recommendation in the response was to enhance support of research conducted by social workers by placing emphasis on the integration of basic science and psychosocial dimensions and approaches (e.g., community based participatory research; translational, dissemination, and implementation science) in program announcements and requests for proposals. Overall, CSWE and SSWR encouraged engaging social workers not only as part of the continuum of care, but also as active members of the social and behavioral science research community who lead and coordinate basic and applied research to scale successful models of social services and support the full diversity of our nation’s populations.
On March 27 the president signed into law HR 748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which authorizes $2.3 trillion in federal spending to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The CARES Act includes several provisions related to higher education, offering new regulatory flexibility in federal financial aid and education grant programs and new emergency education grant funding for states, institutions, and students.
Of the nearly $31 billion provided for the Department of Education in the CARES Act for education stabilization, the law funds $3 billion for states to use to support elementary, secondary, and higher education and $14.25 billion for institutions of higher education. Eligible uses of funding include support to address technology costs associated with a transition to distance education. Of the higher education-specific emergency fund, more than $12 billion is allocated to institutions based on a formula weighted toward the institutional share of full-time Pell students. At least 50% of those grants would have to be used by institutions for emergency grants for students. The remainder of the $14 billion pot would be specifically for minority-serving institutions and grants for institutions with demonstrated unmet need due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Much of the CARES Act is focused on supporting unemployment insurance, increased aid for hospitals, grants for small businesses, emergency education funding, disaster relief funds, and loan funds for corporations, among many other provisions.
It includes several provisions regarding health coverage for COVID-19 diagnostics and prevention, shortages of personal protective equipment, funding for several grant programs, and the authorization of telehealth and emergency waivers. Additionally, the CARES Act reauthorized several expired Title VII health professions programs that focus on primary care, rural health, and geriatrics, including the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Geriatrics Workforce Enhancement Program. The program was reauthorized at its existing funding level.
On April 1 the U.S. Department of Education (ED) proposed new rules on distance learning for higher education. The proposed rules, “Distance Learning and Innovation,” emerged from negotiated rulemaking that reached consensus in 2019. They address a wide range of policies including the definitions of “credit hour” and “distance education” and clarify the requirements of “regular and substantive interaction,” among other changes. A press release announcing the proposed regulations notes, “Although work on the proposed Distance Learning and Innovation regulation started more than a year ago, the COVID-19 National Emergency underscores the need for reform and for all educational institutions to have a robust capacity to teach remotely.” The proposed rules are open for a 30-day comment period through May 4, with ED intending to publish a final regulation prior to November 1, 2020.
Several agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services have issued guidance on flexibilities and instructions to grantees affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below is a compilation of HHS guidance of importance to CSWE members.
Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA): HRSA has announced it will implement all 13 administrative flexibilities for grant recipients outlined in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo from March 19. The flexibilities are further explained in an FAQ released by the agency. Additionally, in an April 16 letter HRSA Administrator Tom Engels encouraged grantees to contact assigned HRSA project officers or grants management specialists for help.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): SAMHSA released an FAQ for current grantees on award management flexibilities during the COVID-19 epidemic, including reporting flexibilities, no cost extensions, and budget modifications.
National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH leadership is emphasizing flexibility during this time of great uncertainty. Guidance will be sent regularly to the research community through the NIH Extramural Nexus newsletter, and it will be posted on their grants policy Coronavirus website. This website is updated regularly with guidance and COVID-19 related funding opportunities.