Democrats consider scaling back new funds to fight next pandemic

People arrive for COVID-19 antibody testing
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Congressional Democrats are considering cutting new funds for pandemic preparedness in an upcoming package from the $30 billion proposed by President Biden to as little as $5 billion, sources say, prompting alarm from public health advocates.

As lawmakers look to pack a slew of priorities, from paid leave to universal prekindergarten, into a $3.5 trillion package, some areas are starting to get cut.

But advocates are warning that of all the funding to scale back on, money to prepare for future pandemics should be among the last items on the list, especially after COVID-19 has killed more than 600,000 Americans.

“It’s so stunning because if there was ever a teachable moment that we need to invest in public health, it is now,” Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the Obama administration, said in an interview. “We will not have another moment like this in our lifetimes.”

The White House proposed $30 billion over four years at the end of March, as part of Biden’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, to “protect Americans from future pandemics.”

The funding would go to priorities like shoring up the Strategic National Stockpile, accelerating the development of therapeutics and vaccines and training personnel for pandemic response.

But as the money competes with other priorities in the coming package using the fast-track process known as reconciliation to bypass a GOP filibuster, the funding increase could come down to around $5 billion, though the negotiations are still in flux and the package is far from finalized.

The White House did not respond when asked if it is still pushing for the full $30 billion.

Public health groups, though, have been lobbying to keep the full amount.

“We’ve been meeting with offices across the Hill to try and make sure they hear this message,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of public and government affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials. “We don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the next crisis.”

Public health groups are also hoping that the money would provide a more reliable and consistent funding stream for local and state public health departments that they say have faced underinvestment for decades.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed by Biden in March, provided $10 billion for preparedness efforts, but advocates say that is far from enough.

“We have starved public health for a long time,” said Frieden, who is now president of Resolve to Save Lives, a global health nonprofit. “Public health tends to be at the end of the line when it comes to giving out money, and that’s been happening for decades.”

Advocates see an ally in Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), head of the Senate Health Committee, who is pushing for the $30 billion. She published a post on Medium this week pointing to a poll from the group Data for Progress that found 71 percent of voters support the $30 billion for pandemic preparedness.

When COVID-19 hit, “our public health system was underfunded, and our nation was unprepared,” Murray wrote, pointing to public health departments getting data sent by fax and lab capacity that was overburdened. “We must never let that happen again.”

Asked about the fate of the $30 billion in a brief hallway interview on Tuesday, Murray indicated the issue was still up in the air.

“Obviously that’s a critical funding pot; we’ll see where we get,” she said.

Murray is also pushing for legislation known as the Public Health Infrastructure Saves Lives Act, which would provide $4.5 billion per year for a range of public health functions.

A group of 25 organizations, including the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Mayo Clinic and Association of American Medical Colleges, wrote to Congress in late June in support of the $30 billion, saying the current allocation of COVID-19 funds do not meet longer-term needs.

“The next fast-moving, novel infectious disease pandemic could be right around the corner,” the groups wrote. “The United States must be prepared to move faster when the next potential pandemic emerges to avoid catastrophic loss of life and economic disruption. A significant new investment in pandemic preparedness is vital to our country’s economy and national security.”

Public health advocates say that after years of boom-and-bust cycles, where funding dries up after one crisis ends, COVID-19 should be a wake-up call for more sustainable funding for public health preparedness.

“If we’re not going to really make a down payment on making our public health system strong enough to protect the lives of not tens but hundreds of thousands of Americans, if we don’t do it now, we are not going to do it,” Frieden said.

Tags Coronavirus Joe Biden Patty Murray
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