Gov. Tim Walz signed a sweeping $200 million package Tuesday to help state hospitals, first responders, long-term care providers and pharmacies respond to the growing spread of the novel coronavirus.

The aid package was passed unanimously in the Minnesota House and Senate in predawn votes. The votes were the final acts of lawmakers before recessing for up to a month in an effort to slow the global pandemic.

“Our health care facilities are Minnesota’s first line of defense against COVID-19,” Walz said. “I am proud of this urgent, bipartisan action to support our state’s health care infrastructure during this unprecedented public health event.”

The funding includes a $50 million infusion into a health care contingency account and $150 million in grants, administered by the state Department of Health, to respond to the outbreak. Health facilities can also use the funds to set up treatment beds or to quarantine those who test positive for the virus.

“We must ensure our health care providers have the resources they need to take care of Minnesotans who may be afflicted with COVID-19,” said House Speaker Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “These investments are critical to addressing this pandemic and making sure Minnesotans who get sick get the care they need.”

Under the agreement, providers accepting grants must agree “not to bill uninsured patients for the cost of COVID-19 screening, testing or treatment.”

Senate Health and Human Services Chairwoman Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said the spending plan includes accountability measures to make sure the money is spent only on responding to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Any unspent funds will be sent back to the state’s general fund.

“It is our mission to ensure that our impressive healthcare system is resilient in their response to an outbreak, and stable when the outbreak ends,” Benson said.

Wendy Burt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Hospital Association, praised the lawmakers for expanding coverage for telemedicine, which will help hospitals accommodate patients who are well enough to receive care from home. Hospitals are preparing for a shortage of bed space.

Last week, the Legislature passed an initial $21 million boost to the health contingency account and planned to stay in session until mid-May. But the number of COVID-19 diagnoses in the state jumped dramatically over the weekend. That includes the first instances of community transmission, meaning the virus is spreading beyond those who had known contact with people who had traveled or tested positive for the virus.

Legislative leaders plan to continue to work as needed.

 

Twitter: @bbierschbach