- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 9, 2005

The Republican chairman of the House committee in charge of public health matters yesterday urged lawmakers to vote against the Bush administration’s new bird-flu prevention plan.

President Bush last week requested Congress pass $7.1 billion in emergency funding to prepare for a potential bird-flu pandemic.

“I want you to know that if that supplemental came to the floor today and all that was in it was this, I would vote against it and would encourage others to vote against it,” Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas said to four federal health officials at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing.

He and other committee members quizzed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt on how to offset costs for the proposed plan.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress have watched warily as federal spending has ballooned under Mr. Bush, who signed the giant Medicare prescription-drug bill and is presiding over the costly war on terror.

The conservatives recently balked when the administration proposed spending “whatever it takes” to rebuild after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Now Republicans in the House and Senate are looking to make deeper budget cuts to try to offset some of that spending.

Lawmakers at the hearing also questioned how state and municipal governments would pay for stocking up on bird-flu treatments.

The H5N1 avian-influenza strain, which can be deadly to humans, has infected parts of Southeast Asia and Europe in the past few weeks, but not the United States. The bird flu generally is not spread in human-to-human contact, but scientists are concerned the virus could mutate into a virulent strain and spread easily among humans.

Out of a roughly $6.7 billion plan, the Department of Health and Human Services allocated $100 million for state and local governments to set up pandemic preparations.

The federal agency will subsidize 25 percent of the costs for states to stockpile up to 31 million treatments of antiviral drugs like Tamiflu, which can be used to treat bird flu.

Several committee Democrats argued the plan does not give enough funding to state and municipal health departments, which have faced spiraling costs from federal health programs like Medicaid.

“Our state and local governments are already burdened enough,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat.

Under the plan, HHS would spend $4.7 billion on developing and stockpiling an avian-influenza vaccine, $1.4 billion on antiviral drugs, and about $600 million on improving international and local health efforts.

The plan requires HHS to fully fund 44 million doses of antiviral drugs, which would be used to serve high-risk patients, Mr. Leavitt said.

HHS plans to have 75 million doses, able to treat 25 percent of the U.S. population, available for immediate treatment and 6 million doses in reserve supply.

Suggestions that there is a $100 million limit on aid to state and local governments are “not consistent with the facts,” Mr. Leavitt said at the hearing.

Mr. Leavitt announced at the hearing that the National Institutes of Health has developed an effective avian-influenza vaccine, which has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Mr. Leavitt also warned the federal government would have a limited role in helping during a national outbreak, adding the public would be responsible for keeping emergency food and safety supplies on hand.

“The dilemma we all face is dealing with this in a way that informs and not enflames and preparing in a way that does not cause a panic,” he said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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