After weeks of debate over whether the Prevention and Public Health Fund, created by President Obama’s health care law, affects women’s health, Republicans are airing additional complaints about the pool of money and how states and communities have used the fund to support a string of questionable initiatives.
The future of the fund, which got $1 billion this year and is slated to get $1.25 billion in 2013, has been a hot topic on Capitol Hill, where congressional Republicans want to kill it and use the money to pay for an extension of student-loan interest-rate subsidies, while Democrats have vowed to defend it as a key part of Mr. Obama’s health care legacy.
In fact, Mr. Obama has vowed to veto House Republicans’ student-loan bill because it eliminates the prevention fund, claiming that Republicans are trying to force Democrats to choose between backing students and supporting women’s health.
Last week, he told high school students in Northern Virginia that Republicans are only going to prevent the student loans from doubling if they can “cut things like preventative health care for women instead.”
The argument that slashing the prevention fund would hurt women’s health has been widely debunked over the past week, but Republicans are honing in on the money stream for other reasons as well.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Rep. Darrell E. Issa of California, the top Republicans on the Senate and House oversight committees, are questioning whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is using some of the funds properly. They said the “healthy living” money is being used to pay for campaigns to change state laws, which could violate federal rules against using taxpayer dollars for lobbying.
“While I strongly support the wellness and prevention mission of the CDC,” Miss Collins said last week, “I also support the safeguards Congress has put in place on the use of federal funds to protect against the misuse of tax dollars. Every dollar spent on inappropriate or illegal activities is a dollar that didn’t go toward saving lives and improving health.”
Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee, during a hearing Wednesday questioned the fund’s spending to promote recreational destinations, intergenerational urban gardening and community bike-sharing programs around the country.
Money from one of the fund’s anti-obesity campaigns, Mr. Stearns said, was provided to Kauai, Hawaii, “to develop remote school drop-off sites to encourage students and staff to walk farther distances … to school entrances.”
“Perhaps [the Health and Human Services Department] is telling Congress that we should eliminate mass transit as part of our war against obesity,” he said. “Incredibly, this same program also funded free pet spaying and neutering. While a laudable goal, the Department of Health and Human Services should focus its limited resources on human health.”
The fund was created in the 2010 health care law as a permanent money stream for public health programs that would be independent of the annual budget process. By the time it’s fully set up in 2015 it will receive $2 billion a year.
GOP leaders call it a “slush fund,” arguing it gives the administration a pool of money to spend on whatever health programs it wants to fund. The programs funded can change each year, but Democrats said the money has been used for important community health programs, such as immunizations and tobacco cessation.
So far, most of the money it’s designated has gone to the CDC — and little of it has gone to fund women’s programs directly.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was awarded the bulk of the prevention fund money, and a review by The Washington Times of what it paid for over the past three years found only one line specifically focused on women’s health.
According to an outline of the fund’s expenditures compiled by the National Association of County and City Health Officials, in 2012 the CDC received $7.1 million for a campaign promoting the health benefits of breast-feeding.
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Susan Crabtree is an award-winning investigative reporter with more than 15 years of reporting experience in Washington, D.C. Her reporting about bribery, corruption and conflict-of-interest issues on Capitol Hill has led to several FBI and ethics investigations, as well as consequences for members within their caucuses and at the ballot box. Susan can be reached at email@example.com.
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