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Pandemic policy preservation bill emerges in Senate



By Katie Lannan
State House News Service

JUNE 8, 2021…..Massachusetts residents could keep voting by mail in any elections scheduled through December 15, Zooming in to public meetings until next April and picking up to-go cocktails with their takeout orders until next March under a bill scheduled for debate in the Senate on Thursday.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday advanced a bill that would continue an array of pandemic-era policies — including authorizations for remote public meetings, takeout alcohol sales and mail-in voting — for several months beyond the June 15 end of the COVID-19 state of emergency.

The Senate plans to take up the bill during a formal session Thursday, and senators have until Wednesday afternoon to offer any amendments.

The clock is ticking for lawmakers to get a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker. The state of emergency ends one week from Tuesday and many of the measures targeted in the Senate bill will end on or soon after that date if new legislation is not passed.

The committee’s bill (S 2467) is broader than the post-emergency legislation Baker filed in late May, which sought temporary extensions for three specific policies: expanded outdoor dining, remote participation in public meetings, and a ban on medical providers billing patients for COVID-related care above the costs paid by insurers.

Each of those concepts is addressed in the Senate bill, which also extends other health care flexibilities, eviction protections and municipal governance measures.

Similar to Baker’s bill, the Senate’s new legislation would extend a ban on health care providers billing patients for COVID-related care for a balance above what is reimbursed by their health insurance, through Jan. 1, 2022. Baker wrote in his filing letter that a federal law with protections against “balance billing” takes effect on that day.

On outdoor dining, the Senate bill would allow a municipality “to approve a request for expansion of outdoor table service, including in the description of a licensed premises to permit outdoor alcohol service, until April 1, 2022,” according to a committee summary.

Restaurants have lobbied for expanded outdoor dining and the ability to sell to-go cocktails to remain in place past next week, describing them as revenue generators helping buoy an industry that has been hard-hit by state pandemic restrictions. The bill would continue the authorization for beer, wine and mixed drink sales with takeout and delivery orders through March 1, 2022.

The Massachusetts Package Stores Association has argued benefits from to-go cocktails come at the expense of brick-and-mortar retailers and that the public health and safety reasons for allowing takeout drinks no longer apply.

The bill would allow public bodies to continue holding their meetings remotely through April 1, 2022 as long as there is a way for the public to access the meeting. That’s seven months longer than the extension Baker proposed for remote-meeting authorization.

Remote versions of representative town meetings, public corporation shareholder meetings and nonprofit member meetings would all be able to continue through Dec. 15, as would notary services by videoconference and mail-in voting opportunities for any state and municipal preliminary, primary, general or special elections.

The Senate is also proposing to tweak a telehealth law Baker signed in January, to keep rate parity between telehealth and in-person services in place for a longer period of time.

The law sought to ensure that telehealth would remain accessible post-pandemic after its popularity and availability surged last year, and it required that insurers permanently reimburse for behavioral telehealth services at the same rate as in-person care.

For primary care and chronic disease management, the law requires equal reimbursements for two years. It keeps equal rates for all other health care services in place for 90 days after the state of emergency ends — that date lands in September, and the Senate bill would push it back until Dec. 15.

On other health care matters, the bill would allow podiatrists, phlebotomists, otherwise unauthorized medical assistants and designated Massachusetts Military Division staff to administer COVID-19 vaccines until April 1. Nursing students in their last semester and unlicensed nursing school graduates would be able to practice in certain settings through that same date.

Until April 1 or ten days after the national COVID-19 emergency is revoked — whichever comes first — pharmacists and pharmacy interns would be able to administer methadone and buprenorphine in opioid treatment programs and certified acute treatment services.

According to the bill summary, eviction protections that require “courts to grant a continuance if the eviction is based solely on nonpayment, the nonpayment was due to a COVID-19 related financial hardship and the defendant has a pending application for rental assistance” would also be extended until next April.

Landlords issuing tenants a notice to quit would need to continue providing them with information on rental assistance programs, court rules and any applicable eviction restrictions, along with an advisory that the notice is not an eviction, until Jan. 1, 2023.

The requirement for state housing officials to report to lawmakers on eviction diversion initiatives would also continue until 2023 under the bill.

While they work under a tight timeline, senators appear to be interested in avoiding any similar time crunches in the future.

The bill includes language that would require the governor to notify the Legislature “not less than 45 days before the termination of any public health emergency declared by the governor pursuant to section 2A of chapter 17 of the General Laws in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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