Latest News

Quiet the storm brewing in health care

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Even before the coronavirus outbreak began, a storm was brewing in our health care system. Under the Trump administration, the number of uninsured Americans has steadily increased from the record lows seen following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Thanks to the administration’s efforts to undermine the health care law, combined with political resistance to Medicaid expansion in many states, the uninsured rate climbed up and up. According to new data from the CDC, nearly 31 million Americans lacked health insurance on the eve of the pandemic.

Then the coronavirus hit. Of the more than 40 million Americans out of work due to the pandemic, an estimated 27 million have also lost their health insurance. Today we face record rates of Americans lacking health insurance precisely when demands on our health care system are greatest. 

The consequences of this policy failure will be severe, and the damage will not just be felt by those uninsured Americans who contract coronavirus. This will hit state budgets, cash-strapped hospitals and American families — who will likely see the financial strain on our system reflected in higher insurance premiums.

Unfortunately, this is not even the worst-case scenario. Having failed twice to overturn the Affordable Care Act in Congress, the Trump administration is currently leading a lawsuit that would overturn the health care law in its entirety with no plan for replacement. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case this fall, precisely when public health experts warn we could face a second wave of COVID cases. If successful, the Trump administration lawsuit would dismantle health coverage for millions of Americans and protections for the millions more who have a pre-existing condition.

To be clear, this legal challenge to the health coverage and protections that millions of Americans rely on represents the entirety of the Trump administration’s plan to address the health coverage crisis we now face.

The administration should immediately withdraw this lawsuit that threatens to disrupt our entire health care system in the middle of a pandemic. But merely avoiding this impending disaster is not nearly enough. We need to dramatically and quickly expand coverage for those Americans out of work due to the coronavirus, as well as for those Americans who lacked insurance before the crisis began.

First, we must expand and strengthen Medicaid. More than 380,000 Virginians have already gained affordable coverage through our expansion of Medicaid. As unemployment increases, states will see a further influx of individuals eligible for Medicaid coverage. Congress should provide states with additional funding, tied to unemployment rates, to help address this influx. In addition, we should pass legislation I’ve introduced called the SAME Act, which would make sure states such as Virginia that were late to expand Medicaid get their fair share of federal funding. 

Second, Congress should help workers who have lost their employer-provided insurance regain that coverage through the COBRA program. To offset the high cost of paying for an employer-sponsored plan without employer support, the federal government should temporarily help cover the costs until it is safe for workers to return to work.

Third, the Trump administration must re-open the Affordable Care Act health care exchanges so uninsured individuals can immediately enroll in health care coverage. Congress should also enhance tax credits to help more Americans afford this marketplace coverage.

These are three ideas that can and should be enacted in the next round of coronavirus relief legislation. While the legislative solutions I’ve described are not a cure-all to structural problems in our health care system, they would quickly help millions of Americans regain coverage during this critical moment.

With unemployment and uninsured rates at record highs, the combined economic and health care crisis we face cannot be ignored. The solutions I’ve described would allow us to get millions of Americans covered as quickly as possible, using the tools that are already available. We should implement them before it is too late.

Mark Warner represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate.



The national security cost of Trump’s politicization of U.S. intelligence

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate and is vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In the world of national security, what we don’t know can hurt us. The men and women of the intelligence community work every day against that unknown, searching for the truth — uncovering our enemies’ secrets to help keep Americans safe.

Presidents do not always agree with the intelligence community’s recommendations, and that independence can be good. But the role of U.S. intelligence services is, and must be, to speak truth to power, even when it is not politically convenient.

Over the past three years, President Trump has made no secret of his distaste for the intelligence community’s independence, which is fundamental to its proper functioning. As vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I have been deeply disturbed watching the president disparage the work of these brave Americans and publicly cast doubt on intelligence findings that run counter to his political narrative. But some of the president’s actions are more worrying than his words or tweets, and I have been particularly troubled by the politically motivated firing of senior intelligence leaders. These firings threaten to do lasting damage to the intelligence community.

Late on a Friday night this month, in the midst of a global pandemic, the president fired the intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson. It’s clear that Atkinson was not targeted because he had failed in his job as the intelligence community’s chief watchdog or because he had broken a law. No, Atkinson was fired precisely because he did his job and followed the law requiring him to alert Congress about a whistleblower complaint, a report that later led to the president’s impeachment hearings.

This firing adds Atkinson to the disturbing number of intelligence officials who have been pushed out by this president — a list that includes two directors of national Intelligence, multiple well-regarded career intelligence officials, and the acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

What each of these ousted intelligence officials has in common, besides a history of service to our country, is that all were punished for speaking truth to power. They were fired because they had the temerity to brief the president and Congress about threats to the United States that are politically inconvenient to Trump. 

In the case of the most recent director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, his offense was permitting the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to be briefed about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2020 election. And Maguire’s predecessor, Daniel Coats, was, according to media accounts, forced to step down because he provided assessments on Russia and North Korea, among other matters, that angered the president.

Already, the consequences of this remaking of the intelligence community in Trump’s image are visible. Senior intelligence officials are increasingly reluctant to engage in otherwise routine, nonpartisan communication with the congressional committees that oversee the intelligence agencies, for fear that something they say in a hearing or briefing will anger the president. At a more basic level, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence lacks a single Senate-confirmed official. For now, this crucial office is headed by a temporary appointee and career political operative with little experience in intelligence and few obvious qualifications beyond political loyalty to the president.

These actions send profoundly dangerous signals to career intelligence professionals. If presenting objective information about threats to the United States is treated as political disloyalty to the president, our intelligence community simply cannot function as it was intended to. The consequences of this breakdown will undoubtedly be measured in American lives.

The intelligence community is far from perfect. It makes mistakes. As vice chairman of the Senate committee overseeing our nation’s intelligence agencies, I often see the worst consequences of those screw-ups. But I also see the best our intelligence community has to offer. And that best is made up of professional men and women who work hard every day gathering objective information about what the bad guys of the world are doing to harm our country, and what we can do to stop them.

Their objectivity and the credibility it gives them are our first line of defense. Efforts by this president to intimidate and extract personal loyalty from U.S. intelligence services may be politically advantageous in the short term, but over time the consequences for our country will be disastrous.

Coronavirus exposes gig workforce left behind

By Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA)

It took a global pandemic for Congress to finally, tentatively wake up to major flaws in America’s social safety net. Sitting in negotiations for the third coronavirus relief, known as the CARES Act, I remember as my colleagues began to acknowledge that the U.S. unemployment insurance program failed to cover millions of workers who make a living as independent contractors, freelancers, “gig workers,” and self-employed entrepreneurs.

The “contingent workforce” has been around for decades, long before internet platforms like Uber, Airbnb, Postmates, and Taskrabbit enabled the rise of the “gig economy.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, independent workers make up around 10% of the workforce—approximately 16 million people. But, that doesn’t take into account those who supplement traditional jobs with income on the side or millions of workers in the service and agriculture industries who often work jobs that don’t offer reliable benefits. We know that the majority of service sector, part-time, and low-wage workers in America don’t have access to healthcare, paid leave, or a telework option through their employer.

For years, I’ve been telling anyone who would listen that our system was increasingly leaving millions of workers behind. But, it took the prospect that millions of Lyft drivers, hair stylists, truck drivers, freelance designers, handymen, and other independent workers could be stuck with no income and no safety net to fall back on in the middle of a pandemic for Congress to act.

Fortunately, Congress recently took a first, if temporary, step towards correcting this gaping hole in our unemployment insurance program. The bipartisan coronavirus relief package Congress passed contains the most dramatic expansion of unemployment insurance in decades, finally extending benefits to independent workers, the self-employed, as well as part-time workers who’ve had their hours cut. 

This expansion of eligibility is an important step, and one that Congress should look to make permanent in a financially sustainable way – supported by employer contributions – once this crisis is over. But, unemployment insurance is only one piece of our social insurance system. 

Even before we began to feel the economic consequences of the coronavirus, gig workers were sounding the alarm that their lack of access to paid sick leave could create a potential threat to public health, where sick workers would be forced to choose between their health and a paycheck. At the beginning of this pandemic, I called on the largest gig worker platforms to provide paid sick leave for drivers getting treated, quarantining, or caring for a loved one with COVID-19.  I am glad that several companies stepped up to provide this assistance for their workers before it led to a public health emergency. But as recent organizing by gig workers has demonstrated, paid leave for sick workers is just the tip of the iceberg.

Recognizing the public health challenges facing workers in other fields who lack these benefits, Congress temporarily expanded paid leave to some workers as part of the coronavirus response. But millions more still lack paid sick leave, and the temporary nature of these coronavirus relief programs mean the cracks in our system will open right back up when this crisis is over.

Congress should not simply wait until the next economic calamity to swoop in and try to catch these millions of Americans who have been failed by our social safety net. While our first priority must be weathering this crisis, our recovery must include structural reforms that guarantee a social safety net to every American.  To do that, we must find a way to ensure access to our entire system of social insurance, including healthcare, unemployment insurance, paid leave, workers’ compensation, skills training, tax withholding, and tax-advantaged retirement savings. 

We need to move towards a portable benefits system that allows Americans of all walks of life to pay into package of benefits that can follow them from job to job or gig to gig. The program doesn’t necessarily have to come from the federal government—labor unions, technology firms, state, and local governments, or consumer-employer partnerships like New York’s Black Car Fund may be part of the solution.

I’ve proposed a portable benefits pilot program that would empower states, local governments, and worker advocate non-profits to experiment with these ideas, and I am hopeful that we can include this bipartisan proposal in future coronavirus relief legislation. We need to patch the holes in our social safety net now, not when the next crisis hits.

Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, is a former technology entrepreneur and Governor of Virginia. He serves on the Banking, Budget, Finance, Rules and Intelligence committees.

Americans are Drowning in $1.5 Trillion of Student Loan Debt. There's One Easy Way Congress Could Help
By Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD)

Every summer, college graduates around the country don their caps and gowns in celebration of a job well done, with the hopes of using their degrees to propel them into a successful career.

But for many young Americans entering the workplace, that first job will also bring with it the first payment on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt — debt that can take them decades to pay off.

While college is certainly not the only path to a good job, the fact is more than half of all jobs paying over $35,000 require a bachelor’s degree or higher — and that number is only expected to grow.

Americans are following the money. Today more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become the one of the biggest consumer debt categories. All told, student debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1.5 trillion.

For South Dakotans, more than 109,000 borrowers hold $3.3 billion in total outstanding federal student loan debt, according to recent data from the Department of Education. That averages out to more than $30,000 per borrower. In Virginia, more than 1 million borrowers hold $38 billion in total outstanding debt. Across America, it’s estimated that the average borrower has more than $37,000 in debt, while more than 2 million student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more — and these figures continue to rise.

As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity.

While the federal government already provides some assistance to those who are eligible, much more can be done to help graduates responsibly pay down their student debt and help employers recruit and retain qualified candidates for good-paying jobs.

That is why we introduced the bipartisan Employer Participation in Repayment Act. Employers can already contribute up to $5,250 each year tax free to help cover the education expenses of students who are working while taking classes. Our legislation would expand this benefit to allow employers to provide the same tax-free contributions to their employees who are no longer in school and help them pay down their student loan debt. Right now, borrowers pay taxes on any contributions their employer makes toward their student loans. Our bill would help employees pay down their student debt more quickly and put more of their hard-earned money toward buying a home, starting a business, or saving for the future.

This is an obvious benefit for graduates, but it would also give employers a new tool and benefit option that would help them attract and retain top-level talent. This is a win-win scenario for graduates, for businesses and for the American economy.

We know this bipartisan legislation isn’t a silver bullet. More must be done to bring down the cost of higher education and expand opportunities for those Americans who choose not to go to college. But for the millions of Americans currently saddled with student debt, our bill would begin to ease that burden almost immediately.

Our bill can pass Congress and get the president’s signature this year. With more than one-third of both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors and a wide variety of endorsing stakeholder groups, our bill has earned the type of consensus support that’s not easily found in Washington these days. Several major companies have already committed to introducing student loan repayment benefits if Congress steps up and makes this fix. Let’s give employees the chance to take them up on the offer.

By working together in support of this bill, Democrats and Republicans can help give student borrowers some relief and put them on the pathway to success.

A bipartisan proposal to boost rural America

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the rise of globalization and new technologies dramatically changed our nation’s economy. Small towns once home to thriving factories, plants, and mills saw entire industries disappear along with many jobs, and the families who relied on them to put food on the table. These losses were later compounded by the Great Recession, which hit rural areas particularly hard.

While the economic recovery that began earlier this decade has brought prosperity to some, the growth hasn’t been spread evenly. Here in Virginia, many of the counties that lost businesses during the recession have not made up those losses — and most of those counties are in rural areas. That’s part of the reason why traditional economic indicators like a booming stock market and strengthening GDP growth don’t always reflect the financial reality of everyday Americans.

Despite the many challenges they have faced, folks in rural communities across the country have been banding together and working to revive the towns and neighborhoods they grew up in.

I’ve seen firsthand examples of this throughout Virginia, in places such as the Danville River District, where entrepreneurs, with the help of federal economic development tools such as the historic tax credit, are revitalizing old buildings and opening up restaurants, breweries, and high-tech companies, among a host of other new ventures launched in the last several years.

However, too many communities across our Commonwealth still face a shortage of investment and opportunity. Even as our larger cities grow and expand, we simply can’t afford to leave our smaller and more rural towns behind.

That’s why I was proud to work recently with a bipartisan group of Senators to write and introduce the Rural Jobs Act. Instead of Washington trying to reinvent the wheel, this legislation tackles the issue of rural job creation head-on, using tools we already know to be effective at expanding economic opportunities.

Our legislation will build on the success of an existing program known as the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to kick-start rural economies in Virginia and across the nation, increasing the flow of private dollars to distressed and underserved areas. Currently, the NMTC program gives private investors a modest tax incentive to encourage them to invest in low-income areas. This program has already been proven beneficial for both investors and the communities where they create jobs and build new businesses. In fact, every taxpayer dollar used for the NMTC generates eight times that amount in private investment.

Since its creation in 2003, the NMTC has spurred $1.4 billion in private investment here in Virginia. In Roanoke, for example, the NMTC has supported job-creating renovations at the Claude Moore Culinary School and the Roanoke City Market.

But while the NMTC has created thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth, the truth is, this program could be doing more to support economic growth in less-urban areas.

That’s where our bill comes in. Many Virginians in rural towns are eager to see their communities flourish with innovative businesses. But too often they’re at a disadvantage when competing with larger municipalities. Our legislation would level that playing field.

The Rural Jobs Act would fuel investment in distressed towns throughout Virginia by setting aside $ 1 billion in NMTC funds over two years specifically for areas designated as Rural Job Zones – low-income rural census tracts with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

Virginia would have more qualified census tracts than almost any other state, giving towns across Southside and Southwest Virginia an extra boost to help attract business and spur economic development. Importantly, the Rural Jobs Act would work alongside other economic development tools, like the already-successful historic and low-income housing tax credits, and newer ideas, like the “opportunity zones” that were part of the 2017 tax bill, to jumpstart growth across rural America.

The New Markets Tax Credit has already helped create more than 14,500 Virginia jobs. The Rural Jobs Act will help build on this success and make sure rural communities are able to take full advantage of the business-friendly environment for which Virginia is nationally recognized.

All the good jobs in America are at risk of going to a handful of cities, but there’s still time to stop it
By Sen. Mark R. Warner

The truth is, the opportunity to earn a good life through hard work is moving out of reach for too many Americans. As someone who has benefited greatly from our free enterprise system as an entrepreneur, I recognize that modern American capitalism just isn’t working for enough people in this country.

Over the last 50 years, globalization, automation and disruptive technologies have both destroyed and created millions of jobs. But the benefits have not been spread evenly. The result is an inequality of opportunity, with new, good-paying jobs increasingly concentrated in a handful of urban centers, available to a small, skilled workforce that does not represent the racial, geographic and socioeconomic diversity of our country.

Workers now face not only historic income inequality but great income insecurity due to the growing threat of their jobs being automated, outsourced or eliminated in the next round of corporate mergers. These problems are only made worse by companies that put short-term profits ahead of long-term growth — prioritizing mergers and acquisitions over investments in their physical and human capital.

Unfortunately, the temptation for policymakers is to treat the symptoms of inequality when what we really need is a new economic model to prepare Americans for work in the 21st century.

Let’s address the issue of income insecurity and recognize that many folks aren’t working one job for their entire career or even one job at a time. We need federal and local government to experiment with industry to develop a portable benefits system to follow workers from job to job and gig to gig.

We also need to think big. We need real bipartisan tax reform that rewards hard work and investments in American workers. Now, if a company buys a new robot to replace its workers, that’s an asset. If the company invests in training its workers, that’s an expense. Let’s fix that. While we’re at it, let’s replicate the success of the R&D tax credit and give companies an incentive to train low- and moderate-income workers to help them climb the economic ladder.

We need to do this if we are serious about closing a skills gap that will only get worse with automation. One recent study found that by the year 2030, up to one-third of American workers will need to retrain or change jobs to keep up with disruptions due to automation and a changing economy. We need to radically change our approach to job training in this country, from investments in community and technical colleges, to apprenticeship programs, to savings accounts that aid in lifelong learning.

The American dream might feel like it’s fading away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, we can rebalance the economic scales a little more in favor of American workers while nurturing the competitive spirit that built the U.S. economy into the dominant global force it is today.

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

It isn’t rocket science. When you have to ride the bus an hour round-trip just to buy fresh vegetables, you eat fewer fresh vegetables. When the grocery store is a two-mile walk, but the fast food restaurant or corner store that only sells processed foods are just down the street, you’re probably going to end up eating more processed foods. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality for an estimated 39 million Americans who live in “food deserts” — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and 10 or more miles in rural regions. Here in Hampton Roads, approximately 400,000 thousand people live in food deserts.

Urban food deserts are often found in lower-income communities and communities of color. Individuals who live in these communities with low access to healthy food options are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

I don’t think it’s right that, in the richest country in the world, a person’s ZIP code should be a sentence to a lifetime of poor nutrition and the health problems that go with it. Families in Virginia deserve reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to help end food deserts here in Virginia and around the country.

This bipartisan legislation would spark investment in food deserts across the country by providing tax credits or grants to providers who open a new store or retrofit an existing store to offer more fresh foods.

A big part of the challenge is convincing grocers to take a chance on investing in a neighborhood that may be lower income and may not have had a grocery store for many years. My bill would provide a one-time tax credit to help grocers “get to yes” on investing in food desert neighborhoods.

But while bringing more grocery stores to food deserts is an important part of the solution, it can’t be our only approach. There is likely no single silver bullet to ending food deserts and the problems associated with them. Just putting some organic produce on the shelf won’t be enough on its own to change nutritional habits in communities where fresh foods have been scarce for many years.

That’s where community organizations and food banks are absolutely essential. Across the country, community organizations are experimenting with mobile food markets and other solutions that reintroduce fresh produce directly into food deserts. This legislation would also support these innovative efforts.

Hampton Roads is surrounded by some of the best sources of fresh food — the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. We need to rebuild the connections between farmers and the communities that eat their food.

This legislation may not end food deserts once and for all. But that doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t use its resources to help solve a problem that affects millions of Americans and contributes to serious, but preventable, health problems.

I reject the notion that only those who can afford a car or a house near a grocery store deserve access to healthy food. If we have the tools to help military families, people of color or people with lower incomes get better access to healthy foods, then we should use them.

The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act takes these tools that we have — tax credits to help build grocery stores or expand their healthy food sections, grants for food banks and mobile food options — and it puts them to work.

This a solvable problem. It’s time for Congress to do its part and empower communities to end food deserts.

Keeping our promise to Virginia's miners
By Sen. Mark R. Warner 
In the Bristol Herald Courier

Standing up for our retired miners and their families has brought coal state Republicans and Democrats together in the past. Now, once again, it’s time for representatives from both parties to put partisanship aside and go to bat for Virginia’s miners — before it’s too late.

Earlier this year, a federal court allowed the Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated the Bullitt Mine in Wise County, to sever its United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) union contracts with current and former workers. Now, more than 1,200 miners and their dependents around the country, including some 500 here in Virginia, stand to lose their pensions and health care coverage.

Frankly, it’s a disgrace that a company can go to court and leave its workers out in the cold, so that the company’s creditors can continue to get paid. We do need to reform our bankruptcy system, but right now my main concern is making sure these miners and their families don’t lose their hard-earned benefits. While these miners have reached a temporary settlement with Westmoreland to extend their health care benefits for a few months, the fact is, they will be left with nothing if Congress does not act soon.

That’s why I’ve teamed up with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to introduce the American Miners Act. This bill would preserve the Westmoreland miners’ pensions and health benefits by making them eligible for benefits under the Coal Act fund — a program for “orphan” miners whose companies are no longer operating.

These are hard working men and women who have endured years of back-breaking work in order to fuel the economic success of our Commonwealth. Now it’s time for the federal government to deliver on the promise it made to our miners.

In 1946, the federal government, under President Truman, made a promise to protect the hard-earned retirement and health care benefits of UMWA miners — to honor their hard work and sacrifice.

This landmark agreement gave America’s miners the security they needed and deserved. Since that time, they’ve worked hard and done everything that has been asked of them.

Now it’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain — for the Westmoreland miners, and for the thousands of UMWA retirees whose pensions are still in jeopardy.

We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of our bipartisan victory securing healthcare benefits for more than 22,000 miners and their families. This was an important win for coal country, but our work is not done yet. The pensions our miners have earned are still on the chopping block, and recent coal company bankruptcies like Westmoreland’s threaten the progress we’ve made so far.

Passing the American Miners Act will make sure that miners’ healthcare benefits and pensions will be protected going forward.

We also need to recognize that both UMWA and non-union miners across Virginia have experienced hardships, as their families have lost hard-earned benefits. All Virginia miners and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the benefits they have earned during their career as miners.

One of the ways we can do this is by making sure we preserve resources for those miners who have developed black lung disease. The American Miners Act strengthens the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides critical benefits for thousands of retirees suffering from this deadly disease. Coal miners in Southwest Virginia have been some of the hardest hit by black lung, and Virginia is ground zero for the recent outbreak of advanced cases of the disease known as complicated black lung.

Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leadership allowed a key funding source for the trust fund to expire in December. If we fail to restore funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, miners struggling with this debilitating disease may not have access to the high-quality care they deserve, beginning as soon as next year.

It’s far past time to fix this problem. Our miners have paid their dues and earned their benefits. Now it’s our turn to secure their healthcare and pensions and shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

The President campaigned on a promise to take care of our coal miners, and frankly, so did I. Now is the time for us all to leave our Republican and Democrat hats at the door and work together to get this done. The federal government must not turn its back on a generation of miners who risked their lives and health to fuel our nation.