FILE - Sen. Roy Blunt, 2020

Senate Rules and Administration Committee chairman Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., listens to testimony, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, about elections, on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

(The Center Square) – When Congress adopted the $2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security (CARES) Act in March 2020, what would be the first of three federal pandemic aid packages created the Provider Relief Fund (PRF).

Established in April 2020 under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (DHS), the PRF allowed health care providers, hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities (ALFs) to receive federal pandemic assistance via automatic payment, including direct deposit.

The CARES Act earmarked $178 billion for the PRF. The fund received another $8.5 billion in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) approved by Congress in March.

Through September 2020, the DHS distributed more than $135 billion in PRF assistance grants. Since then, however, the fund hasn’t allocated any money at all.

As health care providers and hospitals struggle with increased expenses, delayed elective procedures, lost revenues and other costs associated with the delta variant-fueled COVID-19 outbreak, Missouri senior Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is among senate GOP leaders asking why nearly 30% – more than $51 billion – in PRF money has idled unspent for nearly a year.

“It has been 11 months since the last PRF distribution was announced,” Blunt and four other Senate Republicans wrote in a letter to DHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “It is baffling to us that the (DHS) has failed to even promulgate a plan to distribute those funds to hospitals and providers disproportionately impacted by the current wave of COVID-19 cases.”

Blunt, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Labor, Health and Human Services, Education & Related Agencies Subcommittee, was joined in the letter by Senate Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, Ky., and U.S. Sens. Richard Burr, N.C., Richard Shelby, Ala., and Mike Crapo, Idaho.

“The nation is currently experiencing the ‘fourth wave’ of COVID-19 infections, with hospitals and health care providers around the country stretched to breaking points not seen since the earliest days of the pandemic,” the senators wrote. “Yet, during the first seven months of this administration, (DHS) has refused to issue any PRF distributions. Our question to you is simple: Why?”

In late August, DHS announced it had hired four outside firms to audit the $135 billion distributed from the PRF. The first audits begin after Sept. 30 and will focus on providers that received at least $750,000 from the PRF.

But the senators said it’s best to distribute now, audit later. “Our message is simple: The (DHS) must distribute needed PRF funds without further delay,” they wrote.

Some states have asked hospitals to stop elective procedures while many hospitals are reporting staffing shortages with intensive care unit beds “at capacity in many regions” as “nursing home infections have increased once again after a June low,” they wrote.

“At the same time,” the letter continues, “the PRF has served as a targeted lifeline to the hospitals and providers on the frontlines who are providing care to patients during the pandemic.”

None of the five GOP senators were among the 40 U.S. senators who signed onto a bipartisan Aug. 26 letter also calling on Becerra to distribute PRF monies, especially for struggling rural hospitals.

“In rural areas in particular, the PRF has prevented facilities that struggled before and during the pandemic from falling into bankruptcy or closing entirely,” the bipartisan group wrote, noting “all of the rural provider funding remained unobligated” in May and is still idling in the fund.