Zika funding fight throws wrench in health lobbyists’ plans

This story was originally published on Monday in The Hill Extra

Public health groups are disappointed Congress has dragged out funding to fight the Zika virus and neglected other health priorities.

But a coalition of health groups that have lobbied for Zika funding is satisfied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) bill extending funding for the federal government and hope lawmakers will soon address other health care priorities.

Cynthia Pellegrini, the head of the March of Dimes’ Office of Government Affairs, has led a coalition of public health groups that have been fighting for Zika funding and told The Hill Extra the public health community would have preferred to spend this time addressing issues like mental health, opioids, the preterm birth rate, the maternal mortality rate, and more.

“If we had gotten past Zika funding in May then we could have said alright, we didn’t like having to do emergency spending; how can we move forward with a structure that will allow us to react more quickly and more appropriately in the future?” Pellegrini said. “We have never gotten to that conversation, and frankly, it is not a simple conversation, so it is one that has to be had over time.”

Other issues left behind.

“We haven’t been able to devote the time and effort to other important issues because we are stuck on Zika,” Pellegrini added. “I wish we could have passed Zika funding six months ago.”

The advocacy community wants to consider establishing a public health emergency fund to set aside money for future health emergencies like Zika.

“We really have not been able to pursue those conversations in Congress or in the advocacy community, which would move us beyond being reactive and toward being proactive,” Pellegrini said.

The lengthy battle and partisan fighting over the Zika funding surprised and disheartened advocates.

“Personally, as an advocate, my sights got lower,” Dara Lieberman, senior government relations manager for Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), told The Hill Extra. “This was unlike any other emergency that we’ve ever seen. At the beginning of this debate we didn’t think that politics was going to have an impact on how quickly and in what way the money came down.”

Rich Hamburg, interim president and chief executive officer of TFAH, said the Zika funding fight has been unusually partisan and politicized.

“Historically, the response to the public health emergency like this has generally been more bipartisan,” Hamburg said. “Hopefully, it will be a lesson learned that there will be another emergency and collectively we need to have a more unified response.”

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