- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2022

President Biden released Monday a budget that includes nearly $82 billion over five years to maintain preparations for future pandemics through better data collection and equal access to vaccines.

The Department of Health and Human Services said its blueprint for fiscal 2023 creates a Vaccines for Adults program that would provide uninsured adults with any shots recommended by advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is modeled on an existing vaccine program for children.

Among other provisions, the budget includes $200 million for the CDC’s data-modernization efforts amid complaints that data about the coronavirus is often incomplete or outdated. The agency said the data system will be “equity-centered” so that it is “complete, accessible, and representative of all people” and force every state to report useful data so federal decision-makers can act wisely.

“We can’t afford to have bad inputs. We need not only good inputs, we need more inputs,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “We need better coordination with our state and local partners. We can’t have some states giving us great data on where we are with COVID or on the public health crisis that we’re facing and have other states fall behind. We need to coordinate.”

Mr. Becerra said the requested investment for pandemics is about the “long game” as it tries to manage an ever-shifting coronavirus crisis that is still going on.

The COVID-19 crisis is in a lull but the BA.2 variant is beginning to surge in parts of the country, while the White House is getting constant reminders of the threat as it cajoles lawmakers to free up more funds.

SEE ALSO: Biden’s $5.8T budget would raise taxes on wealthy, spend big on police, climate change and military

White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre tested positive after traveling with Mr. Biden. The president tested negative Monday, though it marked the 79-year-old’s fourth close call with the virus this month.

The new budget plan is only a blueprint. Congress would have to provide the actual funding.

Already, Mr. Biden is struggling to get lawmakers to approve about $22 billion in requested emergency funding to combat the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, which is separate from the budget request.

Republicans in Congress said the administration should tap into existing funds or find ways to offset the spending, prompting a flurry of negotiations as prominent labs begin charging uninsured persons for virus testing because a federal reimbursement fund ran out of money.

Mr. Becerra said the fund will begin rejecting claims for vaccination in early April and the government is struggling to purchase monoclonal antibody treatments.

“We know our work isn’t finished,” Mr. Becerra said. “Our resources are depleted, We need support from Congress to finish this fight.”

White House officials have said they need new funding to ensure the federal government can supply booster shots to the general population in case health regulators and advisers recommend them beyond vulnerable populations.

“We have enough supply for the immunocompromised to get a fourth dose and, if authorized in the coming weeks, enough supply for fourth doses for our most vulnerable, including seniors,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said last week. “So we have enough inventory of vaccines to support possible fourth doses this spring. However, if the science shows that fourth doses are needed for the general population later this year, we will not have the supply necessary to ensure shots are available, free, and easy to access for all Americans.”

The fiscal 2023 budget for Mr. Becerra’s sprawling agency calls for $1.7 trillion in mandatory funding — HHS administers federal insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid — and $127 billion in discretionary spending.

Mr. Becerra said the plan includes $21 billion for behavioral health, or $5.3 billion more than actual funding in 2022, as Mr. Biden seeks to put mental health on par with physical health. 

It also includes $470 million to reduce maternal mortality amid concerns that minority mothers are facing worse outcomes, plus funding for Mr. Biden’s Cancer Moonshot and drug-overdose prevention.

“Budgets are more than just dollars. They’re about values,” Mr. Becerra said. “Done right, they turned hardship into hope, opportunity into inclusion.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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