National Journal - Rachel Roubein
Public-health officials’ concern over the Zika virus is increasing, and some key Republicans on Capitol Hill are warming to the idea that fighting the disease might mean doling out more funds—eventually.
Earlier this week, National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials took over the White House briefing room, telling reporters that the Zika virus—and its link to severe birth defects–is scarier than researchers originally thought. The administration harbors complaints over the lack of approval of its roughly $1.9 billion emergency supplemental to combat Zika. The GOP response: That doesn’t mean more funds won’t come down the pike, just not immediately.
“We’re having discussions now on when,” Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the House Appropriations Labor, Health, and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee, told reporters Wednesday morning. “We’re certainly fine, probably through the end of the fiscal year, so it’s not like we have to do something today, but we do need to do something in the foreseeable future.”
More money could come during the annual appropriations process—or the approval of an emergency supplemental if the GOP deems the money a must-have before Oct. 1, according to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers.
“If necessary, we’re prepared to try to do a supplemental bill if it’s needed, but we can’t decide whether it’s needed or not because we can’t get the information from the agencies of the government as to what they need it for,” the Kentucky Republican said. “That would be for this current fiscal year 16. For 17, we can handle that in the regular process, in the drafting of the bills for fiscal 17 that we’re going to appropriate.”
The House unveiled its Agriculture appropriations bill earlier this week with $10 million tucked inside for the Food and Drug Administration to fund Zika and Ebola response activities and accelerate the development of medicines. When reporters questioned House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Zika after a closed-door GOP conference meeting Wednesday, he said the House is continuing to look at what’s needed to help curb the virus. He pointed to a bill headed to the president’s desk that incentivizes companies to develop treatments for the Zika virus.
On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Thad Cochran said in a statement to National Journal that his Appropriations Committee would work with the administration and outside experts “to determine a timely and fiscally responsible response to global public-health threats.” A path forward on more funds, such as through the appropriations process or a stand-alone bill, hasn’t been determined, a GOP Appropriations aide wrote in an email.
In 2014, the response to the Ebola emergency request played out much quicker. That November, President Obama asked Congress to approve a nearly $6.2 billion emergency supplemental to fund the Ebola response, and that next month, lawmakers passed an fiscal 2015 omnibus bill that appropriated $5.4 billion in emergency funds to the public-health crisis.
Yet, the two are different diseases, and “there was a lot more fear around Ebola than there was around Zika,” said Jen Kates, Kaiser Family Foundation’s director of global health and HIV policy. Researchers are in the throes of learning more about Zika, and on Wednesday, CDC concluded for the first time that the virus causes microcephaly—a condition where a baby is born with an abnormally small head and a potentially underdeveloped brain—and other severe birth defects.
“Zika hasn’t hit the U.S. yet in a big way—it’s only been through people traveling,” Kates said. “Until yesterday, there wasn’t a confirmed link between Zika and microcephaly, and now there is, and I think that’s going to bring increased attention to this as a crisis.”
It’s been almost two months since Obama formally requested Zika money from Congress, and administration officials are publicly complaining about the lack of new funds. Last week, the administration begrudgingly announced it would divert unspent Ebola money to combat Zika, a repurposing of funds Republicans argued should be done before appropriating more money. On Monday, Dr. Anne Schuchat, of the CDC, said a commitment of new resources is needed, as it adds a sense of monetary security when beefing up Zika-related efforts.
“So what I would say is that people are acting intensively right now, but that we can’t—if additional resources aren’t coming, we won’t be able to commit to the long-term work that’s needed,” Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, said in the White House briefing room. “Then the other thing is the places that the resources were taken from were areas where important work was going on. And I think we’re quite vulnerable if we’re not able to meet the commitments on the global health security or the Ebola response and recovery.”
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