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What’s in the 'Families First' Law?

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act was signed into law by President Trump on Wednesday after being passed by Congress. The new law is one of several federal measures intended to provide relief to communities hurt by the virus. Duke professors Lisa Gennetian, associate professor of early learning policy studies, and Nathan Boucher, a research health scientist, explain some key features of the law and what those mean for Americans.


Q: Everyone is being urged to watch for symptoms of COVID-19, but some people lack good insurance –and some have no insurance. What if someone suspects they have COVID-19? Can they get free testing and medical examinations, or will they have to pay?

Nathan Boucher: The bill makes COVID-19 testing and treatment free of charge. There will be no deductibles, copayments or coinsurance for individual care provided during health care provider office visits, including in-person visits and telehealth visits, urgent care center visits, and emergency room visits if care is related to COVID–19 or SARS–CoV–2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

A public health and social services emergency fund will add $1 billion to reimburse health care providers for providing health services to uninsured patients related to COVID–19 or SARS-COV-2.


Q: Does the law affect veteran’s hospitals?

NB: The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) will get an additional $60 million for medical care for patients and care providers.

This is important because a little-known requirement of the VHA is that they act as additional care facilities and services for civilians in times of crisis.


Q: What about older Americans? They’re particularly vulnerable during this pandemic. Does the new law contain any special measures to help them?

NB: Seniors do indeed face special risks, including heightened risk of dying from the virus. The new law contains several measures designed to help them.

In particular, the law provides $250 million for activities aging and disabilities services. This includes $160 million for home-delivered nutrition services (programs like Meals on Wheels), $80 million for nutrition services for seniors living in “congregate care homes,” such as assisted living facilities, and $10 million for nutrition services for older Native Americans.


Q: Will Native Americans in general see relief as well?

NB: Prior to the pandemic, American Indians already faced disparities in health care access and health outcomes. The new law allots $64 million to bolster Indian Health Services for social care and health care supports for vulnerable American Indian populations.


Q: How will the new law help children and families cope with COVID-19?

Lisa Gennetian: The new law includes an infusion of emergency funds in three of America’s key food and nutrition programs run by the Department of Agriculture: SNAP, WIC and school meal programs. It also expands eligibility for those programs.

Otherwise known as food stamps, SNAP is America’s most comprehensive safety net program, providing a monthly allotment to income-eligible individuals and families that can be used to purchase food. Benefits are disbursed via an electronic benefit card

The most important aspect of the COVID-19 legislation is suspending requirements to work in order to be eligible for SNAP. Those work rules, which were due to go into effect, would have removed SNAP benefits for nearly 19 million people.   

The COVID-19 legislation increases overall SNAP federal funding available to states. It also expands who can qualify for benefits and how long they can receive benefits.

The legislation also increases overall funding for the Women, Infant and Children’s program that provides infant formula and basic foods to income-eligible families with infants and toddlers. 


Q: What about school meals? What will children who previously received meals at school do now?

LG: School meals serve as an essential source of food and nutrition for hundreds of thousands of American children. For instance, over 700,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade are eligible to receive free or reduced price meals in New York City. Nationally, over 30 million students qualify. 

The new legislation permits states and school districts to reallocate funding for free and reduced-price breakfast, lunch and related meals available during school hours. That funding can now be used to provide meals even when school is closed.

This applies to all schools closed at least five days. For example, school districts can now provide meals as grab-and-go options for students.


Lisa Gennetian is Pritzker Associate Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Her research focuses on policies and programs that reduce child poverty and support children’s development.

Nathan Boucher is an assistant research professor at the Sanford School and a faculty member at the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy, with additional appointments at the Duke School of Medicine and the Durham VA. He formerly practiced as a licensed physician assistant.