- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2016

The Obama administration has chosen some of the most painful cuts possible to pay for anti-Zika efforts, including AIDS research, home heating assistance used by the vulnerable elderly and funds to fight drug addiction.

The administration said it made “difficult” decisions” based on “emergency needs,” though Republicans say there is more than enough money in the budget for the Health and Human Services Department to cover all of its functions and still fund Zika vaccine trials.

With the number of mosquito-borne cases in the U.S. reaching 30 on Monday, the amount of money dedicated to Zika — and the sources of that money — are quickly becoming political issues.

Democrats insist Republicans will be blamed for shortchanging anti-Zika efforts, even as HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell siphoned $81 million from the National Institutes of Health and other department initiatives to bolster Zika vaccine trials.

“That means 70 fewer research grants to identify cures or treatments for cancer, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s, autism, diabetes, or else to make other breakthroughs to reduce illness and improve our quality of life,” said Ron Boehmer, a spokesman for Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who is urging Republican leaders to cancel summer recess and return lawmakers to Capitol Hill to free up more money.

In a statement, HHS itself said $34 million in NIH money was “cut directly” from programs to fight those diseases, while the remaining $47 million would otherwise “go to states to treat people with HIV/AIDS, fight substance abuse and to help low-income families heat their homes in the winter.”

“The funding that was cut from these programs to put towards vaccine development comes near the end of the budget cycle that runs out in September,” agency spokesman Marissa Padilla said. “The cuts come at the expense of other opportunities in priority programs, like hiring additional staff or putting more resources towards new research or state grants.”

But Republican lawmakers were urging HHS to shift funds for a month, saying the budget had plenty of money despite the gloomy assessment from Democrats.

“HHS has sufficient funds to cover this, as well as all other core duties,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, Kentucky Republican.

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, and Mr. Rogers said the administration should have started scrounging for extra funds weeks ago, after Senate Democrats filibustered to block a deal that included $1.1 billion to address the Zika outbreak.

The situation has since intensified. Officials in Texas said Monday that a resident who tested positive appeared to have picked up the disease in Miami, raising the specter of a broader national outbreak thanks to travel cases within the U.S.
Administration scientists, though, said there isn’t enough money now.

“That’s bad for the biomedical enterprise because we’re taking money away from cancer, diabetes, all those types of things,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIH’s director of infectious disease research, said last week.

Cuts at the NIH include $7 million from cancer research, $4.3 from national institutes on heart, lung and blood research and more than $2 million each from diabetes and mental health divisions, according to an agency breakdown.

Outside of NIH, the administration said it would cut nearly $20 million from home heating and cooling assistance to low-income people and $4.1 million from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, even as the federal government pays closer attention to a prescription painkiller and heroin epidemic that is ravaging the nation.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire Democrat, said Congress should have approved emergency funds to combat the opioids epidemic and Zika rather than swiping money from the former to pay for the latter.

“Ignoring the immediate funding needs of these health emergencies is legislative negligence, and I strongly urge [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell and Speaker Ryan to call Congress back into session to finally provide an adequate response to both the Zika virus and the opioid epidemic,” said Mrs. Shaheen, whose push for $600 million in anti-addiction funding was rebuffed by Republicans this year.

Republican leaders say they offered their political rivals an easy way out of the fiscal quagmire, only to be stymied by a White House veto threat and a Democratic filibuster.

Their plan put $1.1 billion in Zika money on the table, but Senate Democrats balked. They said the funding was insufficient, that none of it would go to Planned Parenthood and that it shouldn’t be offset with cuts elsewhere.

President Obama asked in February for some $1.9 billion to fight Zika at home and abroad, though Republican leaders said there was money in existing accounts, forcing the administration to shift more than $500 million from Ebola in West Africa to the Zika effort.

House and Senate Republicans then forged a compromise that would pay for two-thirds of the $1.1 billion with cuts elsewhere and tack the remaining amount onto the deficit in the manner Democrats wanted.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who faces a tough re-election battle, said money to fight Zika “absolutely cannot come at the expense of low-income seniors and families or those on the front lines of the heroin epidemic.” But she insisted that Democrats had the keys to avoid such a scenario.

“I urge my Democratic colleagues to put politics aside, stop their filibuster and swiftly pass the $1.1 billion funding package the House has already passed,” she said.


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