GOP backs new fund for public health

GOP backs new fund for public health
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With Congress remains deadlocked over funding to fight the Zika virus, senior GOP leaders are working to head off yet another big public health funding fight. 

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and others for weeks behind the scenes have been working on legislation to create an emergency fund for public health crises.

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They call it “FEMA for public health,” a reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that helps communities hurt by disasters.

The creation of the reserve fund was unveiled this week in a GOP health spending bill. It would contain $300 million to tackle crises like Zika and Ebola, and would give the administration's top disease control official “immediate access” to the money.

Rogers said he’s talked at length over the idea with Tom Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I've talked to him again about this, along with the leader in the house, and we were all in agreement that we need to have this type of fund,” Rogers said Thursday at a subcommittee markup, where the spending bill was approved.

It now heads to the full committee next week, where it is expected to win approval from the rest of its Republican members. 

Lawmakers and health experts have long praised the idea as a way to circumvent bitter partisan battles that will erupt over an increasing number of global health scares. 

The reserve fund has long been backed by Democrats, led by vocal health advocates like Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.)But it only recently gained ground with Republicans.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who leads the health appropriations subcommittee, said he and Rogers tried to include the emergency fund in last year’s omnibus spending bill but “we just didn't quite get there.” 

“We decided we’d make it a priority this year in terms of finding that funding,” he said on Friday.

This year, McCarthy has been “an indispensable player” in securing the funds, Cole said.

The majority leader has also had a front row seat to the six months of gridlock over Zika funding. 

The White House formally requested $1.9 billion in February. With just one week left before Congress recesses for the political conventions, GOP leaders and Democrats remain in a standstill over the funds.

The White House has threatened to veto the GOP’s latest proposal, a $1.1 billion partisan bill that targets ObamaCare and Planned Parenthood. 

The CDC, as well as the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats, have continued to push hard for an earlier funding bill that had support from Senate Democrats, though its lack of offsets has made it a nonstarter for House Republicans. 

Frieden, who has mentioned the idea multiple times in public appearances this year, said in a statement to The Hill that he applauded the GOP’s efforts. 

“Having funds readily available for public health emergencies, analogous to what FEMA has for natural disasters, would better protect the health security of Americans,” he said in a statement, underscoring the need for a “rapid response.” 

The push by GOP leaders reflects escalating concerns about how to quickly deal with epidemics as they become more widely spread and more widely known. 

In the last two years, Congress and the White House have had to scramble to find money for both Ebola and Zika responses. 

Ron Klain, a former Biden aide who was tapped as “Ebola czar” last year, has warned that the increasing globalization of people, food and travel has opened a gateway to global infectious disease. 

“From now on, regular epidemics are going to be a fact of life,” Klain wrote in a recent op-ed advocating for a FEMA-like organization and funding stream. 

Amid a global outcry over the deadly Ebola virus, Congress was relatively quick to approve the majority of Obama’s $6.2 billion request. Polls revealed high levels of fear among the U.S. public as thousands of people died in West Africa.  

With Zika, however, Republicans have been more cautious on funding from the start. Rogers and other GOP leaders accused the White House of inflating its request, noting that officials had millions left over from Ebola.

It wouldn’t be Congress’s first public health reserve fund: Lawmakers created one in 1983 that has been used just twice since. A total of $57,000 remains in the fund, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

That fund is controlled by the HHS secretary, rather than the CDC director.