Health Care

Health officials to spend research money fighting Zika, Dems say

Top Democrats on Thursday said congressional inaction on Zika funding is forcing the Obama administration to take money from vital biomedical research. 

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) did not disclose how much money would be transferred to fight the Zika virus, but said an announcement from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is forthcoming.

{mosads}”We’re waiting to hear,” Pelosi said. “They’re going to make a public announcement about it.” 

Pelosi did not say when the change would come, but she emphasized that shifting existing funds to address Zika is not a substitute for new money. She said Democrats will fight both for more funding and to restore any money that’s shifted in the meantime.

“I don’t want any inference to be drawn that this money is not necessary where it is, in the fight against Ebola, [for] medical research [and] all of the other purposes of the Department of Health and Human Services,” she said.

Behind Pelosi, a group of Democrats returned to Washington Thursday to urge Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to reconvene Congress immediately to address the Zika funding issue, as well as other crises related to gun violence, opioid addiction and contaminated drinking water in Flint, Mich.

“Do your job,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.). “Doing nothing is not a form of governance.”

With Congress at an impasse over Zika, the administration has already shifted almost $600 million in Ebola funding to address the spread of the virus, which can cause severe birth defects. But Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee’s health subpanel, warned Thursday that the allotment received by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will dry up by the end of September, while funds that went to the NIH and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development (BARDA) expire by the end of August. 

“Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will stand up and talk about how we need to spend money for biomedical research, but NIH is going to have to shift some of that money in order to deal with Zika,” DeLauro said.  

“And if they don’t, vaccine development will be stopped dead in its tracks.” 

DeLauro rattled off slew of statistics pointing to an escalating crisis: More than 7,300 people in the U.S. and its territories have been diagnosed with Zika, she said, “including nearly 1,000 expectant mothers” and more than 40 members of the military.  

“Fifteen babies have been born with Zika related birth defects and one baby in Texas has died,” DeLauro added. “This is a public health emergency. What does it take to get the Republican majority to act?”

In February, President Obama requested $1.9 billion to tackle the spread of Zika. Republicans balked at the price tag, and the Senate agreed instead on a bipartisan bill providing $1.1 billion, much of it from existing funds targeting Ebola. 

House Republicans passed a similar bill, but not before attaching an amendment banning Zika funding for Planned Parenthood clinics — a “poison pill” in the eyes of Democrats that led the Senate to sink the package when it returned to the upper chamber.

Pelosi on Thursday said Republicans were using the Planned Parenthood language as “an excuse” to deny additional funding to an administration they dislike. 

“Planned Parenthood is not a reason, it is an excuse to do nothing,” Pelosi said. “But it’s a silly excuse.”

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