Despite rapid growth in infections, federal rural health panel offers little help for the public on COVID-19

Former Gov. Jeff Colyer says during a Kansas GOP bus tour stop on Oct. 6 in Topeka that he has been “very, very busy” leading the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

WASHINGTON —The pandemic is ripping through rural America, but the website for a federal advisory panel on rural health headed by former Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer is silent on COVID-19.

And Colyer, a Republican and physician, continues to tout the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment despite warnings about its use. He also recently posted photos to his Twitter channel that show him standing close to two Missouri Republicans, Sen. Roy Blunt and Gov. Mike Parson, none of them wearing masks.

Colyer, campaigning in Topeka on a Kansas Republican bus tour earlier this month, says he’s been “very, very busy” leading the panel, despite its lack of public information about the health crisis.

Chartered in 1987, the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services is supposed to give advice to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services about the provision and financing of health care in rural areas. Its members are from outside HHS, and it is apparently seen as important enough to the Trump administration to have survived a purge last year of advisory panels across the federal government.

Yet even though the virus is spreading quickly in rural areas, the committee hasn’t posted information on its website about the pandemic or its health effects in rural America. Public health experts say the government has failed to do enough overall in stemming the outbreak in the nation’s small towns and farm regions, as winter nears and temperatures plummet, sending people indoors and in close contact.

Colyer’s committee has regularly published policy briefs over the last decade. But other materials, such as letters to the administration and recommendations and reports to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, have not been published to the site in years.

The committee website’s most recent letter to the administration dates to 2018; its latest recommendations are from 2014; and its most recent report to the secretary was released in 2011.

The committee held its second meeting of the year nearly three months ago but hasn’t posted information about it. And its most recent policy briefs — published in May — address pre-planned topics of maternal mortality and HIV prevention and treatment in rural America.

According to its website, the committee selects one or more topics to explore every year and produces a report with recommendations for the secretary. Committee members also send letters to the secretary and are authorized to produce white papers on other issues.

A charter document describes committee reports as optional and says the committee may meet up to three times a year, in person or on a webcast. Its annual budget is about $325,000, of which an estimated $189,000 goes to compensation and travel expenses for members and $137,000 goes to staff support.

The committee currently has 21 members, according to its website, but only 14 people, including Colyer, are listed as members — and the committee is in the process of adding members. The charter says the committee must have between 15 and 21 members, and the committee’s website says its size was expanded to 21 in 2002.

Colyer is the panel’s fifth chair and its second (after former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker) from Kansas. He was appointed in February, about a year after his gubernatorial stint ended.

He has touted hydroxychloroquine throughout the pandemic despite warnings about its use for COVID-19.

In June, the Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency use authorization for the anti-malarial drug and later cited safety concerns including serious heart rhythm problems, blood and lymph system disorders, kidney injuries and liver problems and failure.

In addition to hydroxychloroquine, Colyer has touted other therapies like convalescent plasma, which President Donald Trump falsely claimed reduces mortality rates by 35%, according to The FDA has issued an emergency use authorization for convalescent plasma but hasn’t approved any drugs or therapies to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Colyer did not respond to requests for comment, though he cited his work on the committee on the GOP bus tour. “We had our first meeting at this obscure place — I’m sure you’ve never heard of it — called the CDC,” he told the audience, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. “And from that meeting onward, we’ve been very, very busy.” Read more

Bush administration ethics lawyer slams hiring of DeJoy as postmaster

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy in a screenshot taken during recent online congressional testimony.

WASHINGTON — A top ethics lawyer to former President George W. Bush on Monday decried Louis DeJoy’s appointment to postmaster general and called for a congressional investigation into allegations of criminal activity.

Richard Painter, who served as chief White House ethics lawyer and associate counsel to Bush, said DeJoy should not have been allowed to take control of an agency with which he has large financial ties. He also called on the Postal Service to release documents related to DeJoy’s hiring so the committee can conduct “a proper investigation” into the matter.

In 2014, DeJoy’s former company, New Breed Logistics, based in North Carolina, merged with XPO Logistics, a Postal Service contractor.

DeJoy served on the company’s board of directors until 2018 but still holds a major financial stake in the business, according to The New York Times.

Painter, a professor at the University of Minnesota law school, questioned how DeJoy could ethically run the post office while, at the same time, owning millions of dollars in stock in a company that delivers the mail.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Painter said during a House oversight hearing on potential conflicts of interest under DeJoy’s tenure, which began three months ago.

Painter, who was responsible for ensuring that senior appointees in the Bush administration didn’t run afoul of federal laws barring conflicts of interest, said such a conflict of interest wouldn’t have been tolerated. That would have been a “no-go,” Painter said.

David Fineman, former chair of the Postal Service’s board of governors, also questioned the ethics of DeJoy’s appointment. The Postal Service shouldn’t hire people with apparent conflicts of interest, said Fineman, who now heads the board of the Fair Elections Center.

The hearing comes amid Democratic allegations that the Trump administration is trying to suppress votes during a pandemic in which the Postal Service will serve as “election central” because Americans will be reluctant to vote in person for fear of spreading infection.

President Donald Trump told Fox News this summer that he opposes some funding for the Postal Service because he doesn’t want it used for mail-in votes, repeating his claim that it would lead to “fraudulent” results.

DeJoy, a GOP mega donor and Trump ally, has ushered in sweeping changes to the agency since taking the job in June but has called allegations that they were intended to sway the election results “outrageous.”

Instead, he has characterized the slowdown as a temporary service decline and said changes to overtime, retail hours and the location of mail processing machines and blue mailboxes were made to cut costs and streamline operations — not sway the elections.

This summer, DeJoy said he would suspend some of his moves until after the elections to avoid the appearance of impropriety. He also said he wouldn’t close existing mail processing facilities and would use “standby” resources in October to meet mail surges.

But Democrats have said the delays threaten the integrity of the elections and are depriving Americans of timely delivery of medicine, paychecks and other essentials. Read more

White House orders halt to evictions, indicates support for additional relief to states

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced on Tuesday it would temporarily halt residential evictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 infections.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin disclosed during a congressional hearing that the executive order would be issued. It runs through Dec. 31.

“I think you’ll be quite pleased with the impact that it will have,” Mnuchin told Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who sits on the panel.

The order estimates that 30 million to 40 million renters are at risk of eviction. “A wave of evictions on that scale would be unprecedented in modern times,” it says.

The halt was issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services.

It does not relieve people of obligations to pay rent or preclude the collection of fees, penalties or interest as the result of the failure to pay rent or make timely housing payments.

Congress passed a ban on evictions earlier this year, but it expired at the end of July.

Support for more relief cash

Meanwhile, Mnuchin also indicated the Trump administration would be open to providing additional aid to state and local governments — a key sticking point in stalled negotiations over another round of federal coronavirus relief.

Mnuchin also urged lawmakers to move forward with a package that would address specific areas of agreement, such as enhanced loans to small businesses, money for schools to reopen safely, and direct payments to individuals.

He spoke during a hearing of a coronavirus oversight panel in the U.S. House and agreed to reach out to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to resume negotiations once the hearing was over.

However, Mnuchin did not cite a specific figure for assistance to states and repeated the administration position that Democrats’ proposed nearly $1 trillion in such aid was too high, along with other demands.

He conceded negotiators remain far apart. Senate Republicans have been strongly resistant to House Democrats’ push for higher levels of state aid.

In his opening remarks, Mnuchin also backed “substantial” funds for testing and vaccines and continuing enhanced unemployment benefits — another major point of disagreement between the parties. And he called for liability protection for universities, schools and businesses, a GOP priority that Democrats have so far rejected.

Lawmakers have enacted four coronavirus packages since March and have been debating the contours of a fifth for months. Mnuchin was deeply involved in those negotiations.

Pelosi said on Monday that “Republicans refuse to act” and that they “do not understand the gravity of the situation or care about the needs of America’s working families.”

Big divides remain

House Democrats laid out their opening bid in a bill they passed in May that would provide some $3 trillion in additional relief. It includes nearly $1 trillion in aid for state, local, territorial and tribal governments so they can keep firefighters, police officers, health workers, teachers and other public service professionals on the payrolls despite budget shortfalls.

Senate Republicans offered a more targeted $1 trillion overall proposal earlier this summer. They agreed to $150 billion in aid to states and cities and more flexibility to spend the $150 billion for cities and states that was approved in an earlier coronavirus package.

Democrats offered to drop the price tag of their entire package by $1 trillion if Republicans upped theirs by $1 trillion. But Republicans rejected the offer, and Mnuchin said Tuesday that Democratic leaders would not continue to negotiate until all parties agreed to a topline figure.

Talks broke down as lawmakers left for their August recess. Soon after, President Donald Trump signed three presidential memoranda and an executive order targeting people without jobs, facing eviction or beset by student loan payments. Democrats called the actions a “bandaid” on an economic crisis and questioned their legality.

On Tuesday, Mnuchin urged lawmakers to push for a larger deal — but conceded that Republicans and Democrats are far still apart on key issues.

He called $1 trillion in aid to states and cities “way too high” and cited ongoing feuds over how much money to set aside for other priority items. He called for a piecemeal approach if the parties can’t reach a deal on a larger package.

“Let’s start spending money where we can agree to help the American people,” he said.

In what appeared like a resumption of negotiations during the hearing, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), chair of the panel that held the hearing, signaled an openness to finding “some common ground” and said Democrats are willing to come down if the administration is willing to come up and include aid to states and local governments.

But a deal appears still far from reach.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a Republican, railed against bailing out Democratic-led state and local governments. His comments echoed those of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who earlier this year characterized aid to cities and states as a “blue-state bailout” and said he would be open to allowing states to file for bankruptcy.

McConnell’s comments sparked an uproar among Democratic and Republican leaders alike, who noted that state and local governments led by both parties are facing budget shortfalls.

Jordan also objected to helping states run by Democratic governors who have ordered shutdowns to prevent infection outbreaks, though GOP-led states mandated closures as well, and said much of the money approved in an earlier coronavirus package has not yet been spent.

Instead, Jordan called for helping small businesses and giving states more flexibility to use the $150 billion that was already approved for states in the CARES Act. Forget about the “left-wing baloney,” he said. “We should be focused on one thing and one thing only: Letting people go back to work.”

Clyburn brushed off Jordan’s broadsides. “This is not just Democratic governors not reopening schools and businesses,” he said. “This is every governor taking into account the health situation in their particular states.”

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, said he was pleased to hear that the administration is open to aid to cities and states and praised Mnuchin for striking a different tone on the issue.

He also dismissed claims that cities and states haven’t spent funds appropriated earlier this year as a “talking point” Republicans use to oppose additional aid.

He said a report released last week by the Treasury Department doesn’t fully account for all cities and states’ allocations and obligations or for spending in July and August. According to analysis by States Newsroom, North Carolina had only spent 8.8% direct CARES Act funding it had received through June 30 — a number that ranked it 30th among the states.

Mnuchin heralded the “strengthening economic recovery,” citing growth in jobs, retail sales, business activity and home sales, while Clyburn emphasized that millions of Americans are facing eviction, debt and hunger as the pandemic rages on. But Mnuchin conceded that “there is more work to be done, and certain areas of the economy require additional relief.”

House Democrats pummel DeJoy over sharp declines in on-time mail delivery

Stacks of boxes holding mail are seen at a U.S. Post Office sorting center. Photo by Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Rep. Virginia Foxx defends embattled postmaster general

WASHINGTON — Postmaster General Louis DeJoy came under heavy fire Monday for withholding key information about delays in the delivery of mail since he took over the Postal Service just two months ago.

In a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Democrats pressed DeJoy over an internal report made public over the weekend showing steep declines in on-time mail deliveries since July — challenging GOP claims that Democrats manufactured the crisis.

DeJoy did not share findings from the Aug. 12 report last week when senators asked for information about the delays in a Senate oversight hearing on the matter. 

Nor did DeJoy share its findings in response to an Aug. 14 letter Democratic leaders sent him requesting information about the delays by Aug. 21, according to Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who chairs the oversight panel.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testifying before the Senate last week.

The internal post office report “unfortunately” came from a separate source, she said. It was posted on the House Oversight website on Saturday.

There is “absolutely no excuse” for withholding the information, Maloney declared. She threatened to subpoena DeJoy if he does not deliver additional information lawmakers have requested by Wednesday.

The hearing came amid Democratic allegations that the Trump administration is trying to suppress votes during a pandemic in which the postal service will serve as “election central” because Americans will be reluctant to vote in person for fear of spreading infection.

In addition to undermining the integrity of the elections, the delays are depriving Americans of timely delivery of medicine, paychecks and other essentials, Democrats complained.

President Donald Trump told Fox News earlier this month that he opposes some funding for the Postal Service because he doesn’t want it used for mail-in votes, repeating his claim that it would lead to “fraudulent” results.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the panel’s subcommittee on government operations, said Monday that Democrats aimed to save the postal service and preserve “our democratic institutions.”

DeJoy has ushered in sweeping changes to the agency since taking the job 70 days ago but has called allegations that they were intended to sway the election results “outrageous.”

In testimony Monday, he said there were numerous reasons for delays and characterized them as a temporary service decline rather than a permanent change.

He said he remains “laser-focused” on addressing the delays but said he has no plans to replace mail processing machines that have already been removed — repeating what he said Friday in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Democrats questioned DeJoy’s honesty and motives, as well as the process by which he was appointed to the position.  Read more

Postmaster general insists it’s his ‘sacred duty’ to ensure election mail on time

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy delivering online testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee

WASHINGTON — Postmaster General Louis DeJoy mounted a strong defense of his record Friday during a high-profile Senate hearing on recent postal delays, calling claims that the Trump administration is trying to sabotage the elections by deliberately disrupting mail service “outrageous.”

DeJoy acknowledged delays during the pandemic but said the agency is fully capable of delivering election mail on time and said successful elections are his “sacred duty” and main priority this fall.  The postmaster general, a former logistics company executive from North Carolina, took over the job in June. He is a top donor to President Donald Trump, and was the finance chairman of the Republican National Convention Host Committee.

Rebutting allegations that he’s acting at Trump’s bidding, DeJoy said he had not spoken to Trump about policy changes he has made since taking the position and has only informed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of his general intention to improve processes and save costs at the cash-strapped agency.

In May, the U.S. House approved $25 billion for the Postal Service in a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package. Trump said last week on Fox News that he opposes some funding because he doesn’t want it used for mail-in votes, repeating his claim that it would lead to “fraudulent” election results.

DeJoy spoke before the Republican-led Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by GOP Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Johnson sought to cast DeJoy in a friendly light ahead of a Democratic-led hearing on the issue in the U.S. House on Monday. That House Oversight and Reform hearing will feature DeJoy again as well as Robert Duncan, chair of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors.

“I think you should be commended, not condemned,” Johnson said.

In his remarks, Johnson called DeJoy the target of a political hit job by Democrats, whom he charged with “ginning up” controversy for political gain. Johnson accused the media of willingly playing along with a “false narrative” that the GOP is disrupting mail service to suppress Democratic votes.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, the ranking Democrat on the panel, countered Johnson, saying complaints about mail service delays “are not manufactured.” He held up a chart depicting a significant drop in on-time mail delivery this summer and cited an investigation that has yielded thousands of complaints. “These are real people,” he said.

Peters said DeJoy owed Americans both an apology and an explanation for delays that have prevented them from timely receipt of medicine, paychecks, benefit statements and more.

Peters concluded at the end of the hearing that he was not satisfied with DeJoy’s responses.

Earlier this week, DeJoy said he would suspend some initiatives to avoid a possible appearance of impropriety. Those changes he’d undertaken involve overtime rules, retail hours at local post offices, and the location of mail processing equipment and blue collection boxes, according to a statement.

He also said he wouldn’t close existing mail processing facilities and would use “standby” resources as of Oct. 1 to meet mail surges.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called his pledge “wholly insufficient” and said it would not reverse damage done.

She said DeJoy won’t replace mail machines that have already been removed and has no plans for “adequate” overtime. “All of these changes directly jeopardize the election and disproportionately threaten to disenfranchise voters in communities of color,” she said in a statement.

DeJoy explained at the hearing that retiring blue boxes and mail sorting machines is routine procedure and said some machines had been removed to account for a recent increase in the volume of package mail. He said he has not eliminated or curtailed overtime pay and noted that he did not direct closures of post offices and has since suspended them.

DeJoy also said in an exchange with Peters that he will not bring back any mail processing machines that have been removed because they’re not needed.

According to the USPS Equipment Reduction Plan issued in May, five post offices in North Carolina were scheduled to lose mail processing machines:

  • Charlotte, 21% reduction, from 41 to 32 machines;
  • Fayetteville, 29% reduction, a drop from 14 to 10 machines;
  • Greensboro, a decrease of 23%, from 38 to 29 machines;
  • Raleigh, 21% decrease, from 32 to 25 machines;
  • Rocky Mount, 12.5% reduction, from eight to seven machines.

The U.S. House will meet tomorrow in a rare weekend session to vote on a measure providing $25 billion in Postal Service funding and barring the agency from changing operations or service levels in place at the beginning of the year.

The Postal Service generates almost all of its revenue through its operations but Congress has at times provided some additional appropriations. The Congressional Research Service reported earlier this year that the post office has continued to incur losses for at least a decade and its expenses in fiscal 2019 were $80 billion while its revenues were $71 billion. The pandemic has only exacerbated those problems.