Congress over the past four years has trimmed spending aimed at fighting a flu pandemic, most recently in this year’s stimulus bill, when a key House Democrat tried but failed to get his colleagues to include hundreds of millions of dollars.
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, but senators objected and he was forced to pull the allocation when the final bill passed in February.
“Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later some strain will,” Mr. Obey said. “We are not prepared today. Lets hope we dont need to be. Because we need to become prepared as soon as possible, I intend to again request additional funds in the upcoming supplemental.”
The outbreak of swine flu has fostered a search for where to place blame. Although Mr. Obey didn’t name names, liberal blogs have been particularly harsh toward Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, who during the stimulus debate touted her opposition to flu-fighting money. She was one of three Republicans who voted for the stimulus bill, and did so after the flu funds and some other provisions were removed.
The senator’s spokesman said Miss Collins does want increased funding for flu preparedness, though she wanted it to be part of the annual spending process, not the one-time 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.
Four years ago, when doctors sounded similar warnings about the avian flu, President Bush pushed for more than $7 billion in fiscal 2006 to produce vaccines and pay for states to prepare readiness plans. The Republican-controlled Congress appropriated only half that money the first year, prompting a sober warning from the administration.
“We are in a race. We are in a race against a fast-moving, virulent virus with the potential to cause an influenza pandemic,” said Michael O. Leavitt, the health and human services secretary at the time.
As the bird-flu threat receded, so did Congress’ willingness to spend, under both Republican and Democratic control.
Funding was reduced despite health specialists’ calls for a continued stream of money to help the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Health and Human Services Department and other agencies prepare for an outbreak.
According to Trust for America’s Health, which pushes for preparedness for a pandemic, Congress appropriated $70 million in fiscal 2007, all of it for CDC, called for spending $155 million in 2008, all to CDC, and called for spending $741 million this year - $156 million to CDC, $78 million to HHS and $507 million to buy vaccines.
Trust for America’s Health said states need an additional $350 million each year to maintain preparedness but that the nation is better able to handle an outbreak than it was four years ago because of the initial funding boost.
President Obama’s budget for fiscal 2010, which begins Oct. 1, is at the blueprint stage and does not have a line item for pandemic spending.