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Defense bill seeks to bolster military’s pandemic response

House and Senate conferees released the agreement on the $731.6 billion policy measure late Thursday

A coronavirus testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, is set up in a parking lot outside FedEx Field on March 31, 2020.
A coronavirus testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, is set up in a parking lot outside FedEx Field on March 31, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The final agreement on the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill includes a slate of provisions intended to bolster the military’s response to the coronavirus, a day after the U.S. recorded its single worst daily death toll since the pandemic began.

House and Senate conferees released the agreement on the massive $731.6 billion policy measure late Thursday. It prescribes Pentagon spending levels for the coming year.

Within the bill are at least 10 measures that directly address the military’s role in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, including requiring the Pentagon to maintain personal protective equipment for all servicemembers, directing the Defense secretary to develop a national pandemic response strategy and expanding the telemedicine capabilities of the Veterans Affairs Department.

“This year’s NDAA has been crafted in the midst of an unprecedented national pandemic. Over the past nine months, the U.S. military has assisted in numerous ways to support communities across the nation, while at the same time facing the dual challenges of protecting the health of service members and maintaining military preparedness,” the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement.

One provision requires the Defense Department to maintain a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment sufficient for every active and reserve servicemember while also ensuring that DOD laboratories have the technology needed to develop vaccines and therapeutics for any future pandemic.

Another provision would create a registry of beneficiaries of TRICARE, the military’s health care program, who were diagnosed with the coronavirus. Similarly, the bill would provide health benefits to National Guard members who are separating from active service if they participated in the federal response to the pandemic.

Roughly 30,000 National Guard members have been deployed across the country since March to help states with their virus response efforts, including managing testing sites and delivering supplies.

The bill also establishes a coronavirus disease panel to review the military health system’s response to the pandemic and report the findings to Congress by June 1, 2021. It also requires the Defense secretary to conduct a study on the financial hardships experienced by members of the Armed Forces because of the pandemic.

The agreement comes amid a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in the U.S., as at least 2,760 Americans died Wednesday from the virus, surpassing the previous record of 2,752 deaths set in April.

Both chambers hope to pass the final measure in the coming days and send it to President Donald Trump’s desk. Trump has threatened to veto the bill.

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