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State House Dems balk at Grove's bill featuring COVID-19 liability protection

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
Rep. Seth Grove makes a fired-up response to Governor Wolf calling local officials cowards as members of the General Assembly from York and Adams counties hold a rally at Gene Latta Ford in Hanover to discuss the need to reopen the local economy by allowing people to safely and responsibly return to work. 
Tuesday, May 12, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

The state House as early as this week could take up a bill authored by Rep. Seth Grove that he says could help the state recoup millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds that were fraudulently used.

But the Dover Township Republican's bill also comes with a catch that could kill any chance of Democratic support: protections from civil liability for businesses where employees got sick.

Civil liability protections have been front and center in disputes over COVID-19 relief nationwide, including on Capitol Hill.

"Civil liability relaxation would expose a lot of workers and consumers to danger from irresponsible practices by bad actors," said Bill Patton, the state House Democratic Caucus spokesperson.

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The legislation would protect health care providers and other entities from lawsuits related to COVID-19, such as for exposure to the disease in a workplace or hospital, unless "gross negligence" could be proven.

Grove has argued that the protections would be "important steps to getting the economy back," as doing so would allow states to reopen without having to deal with a wave of lawsuits.

But Democrats, who in Pennsylvania are a minority in the Legislature and therefore wouldn't be able to kill the bill themselves, countered that the legislation would effectively make it impossible to hold entities accountable.

Democrats do "see some merit in carefully constructed protections," Patton said. But as the bill hasn't yet been scheduled for the House floor, the caucus has not yet included it in discussions.

Despite the anticipated chasm in the Legislature over civil liabilities, Grove has pushed hardest for the language in his legislation that would implement what's known as the False Claims Act.

The act, he said, would allow the state to chase after and recover through fines COVID-19 relief funds that were misused.

“Let’s say there is 10% fraud, which is a realistic number, you’re looking at potentially $390 million worth of fraud (that can be recovered),” Grove said, basing his calculations on the $3.9 billion in federal CARES Act funding the state received.

There are 29 states that have similar anti-fraud measures in place, showing that Pennsylvania is lagging in its efforts to recoup money that should have been used to uplift citizens and businesses amid the global pandemic, Grove said.

There are several scenarios in which the False Claims Act would allow the state to fine entities, ranging from health care providers to businesses, according to the bill.

Those include fraudulently used CARES Act funds, unemployment compensation fraud, selling faulty personal protective equipment to the government and submitting claims for services that were never given.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.