- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

A top House Democrat on Monday accused fellow lawmakers of forcing him to strip millions of dollars out of the recovery act he said would have helped prepare to fight the new swine flu outbreak.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, said he included $420 million in flu-fighting money in the House version of the stimulus bill earlier this year, but senators objected and he was forced to pull the money out.

“Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later some strain will,” he said. “We are not prepared today. Let’s hope we don’t need to be. Because we need to become prepared as soon as possible, I intend to again request additional funds in the upcoming supplemental.”

As attention to the new flu outbreak grows, so does the search for someone to blame for not being prepared. Liberal blogs have targeted Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who in a press release touted her opposition to the flu money. She was just one of three Republicans who voted for the stimulus bill after the flu funds and some other provisions she objected to were removed.

But in a statement, the senator’s spokesman said she wanted the money to go through the regular spending process, not as part of a jobs-creation package.

“And, in fact, the omnibus appropriations bill that was signed into law in March, less than a month after the stimulus bill, contains $156 million for pandemic influenza research, which is $1.4 million more than the Fiscal Year 2008 level,” said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley.

President Bush was the first to ask for a big boost in flu spending, arguing in 2005 that the country was unprepared for the bird flu that was seen as a potential catastrophe. He requested more than $7 billion in pandemic preparedness funds, though Congress appropriated somewhat less.

According to Trust for America’s Health, an umbrella organization that has tried to raise awareness of pandemic disease, funding peaked in fiscal year 2006 with $600 million for states and local governments to create pandemic plans; $5 billion to buy vaccines; $400 million for the Centers for Disease Control; and $78 million for the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The total fell to $70 million in 2007, all of it going to CDC, rose to $155 million in 2008, also all going to CDC, and in the current fiscal year Congress called for spending $741 million, with $156 million going to CDC, $78 million going to HHS and $507 million to buy vaccines.

Trust for America’s Health said states need an additional $350 million each year to keep up their preparedness plans, but said overall the country is better ready to handle an outbreak than it was four years ago.

President Obama’s budget for fiscal year 2010, which begins Oct. 1, is only at the blueprint stage and does not have a line-item for pandemic spending.