House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey, the Wisconsin Democrat whose attempt to secure needed funding for pandemic preparedness was blocked earlier this year after Senate Republicans ridiculed the request, says the U.S. remains unprepared to address a serious public health emergency.
So Obey, who has battled Republicans and Democrats in his long struggle to secure adequate resources to prepare for a global pandemic, will try again to secure the needed money.
The determined Democrat is still getting push back. But his mission should be easier, now that a swine flu outbreak that began in Mexico has spread sufficiently so that the World Health Organization has raised its pandemic alert level to Phase 4 — indicating significant increased risk of a pandemic.
With an outbreak now blamed for the deaths of 149 people in Mexico, and spreading sickness to states across the U.S., Obey says: “Whether or not this influenza strain turns out to have pandemic potential, sooner or later some strain will. We are not prepared today. Let’s hope we don’t need to be.”
According to the a href=”http://healthyamericans.org/”>Trust for America’s Health, which advocates for pandemic preparedness, “State and local officials are the front line responders to outbreaks, yet they have not received any federal funding for pandemic flu preparedness since FY 2006. $350 million is needed annually to adequately maintain state and local pandemic preparedness activities.”
But that, say experts, is merely a “baseline,” not enough money to do all that would be necessary.
Conscious of the shortfall, and the human and economic threats that extend from it, Obey has been scrambling since last year to get needed money to public-health agencies.
The House stimulus bill, as drafted by the appropriations committee chair in January, included $870 million for advanced biomedical research, development and security initiatives. Of that figure, $420 was specifically targeted for pandemic preparedness.
House Democrats backed the measure.
But then, urged on by Republican strategist Karl Rove, Senate Republicans led by Maine Senator Susan Collins attacked the public-health spending and successfully eliminated it from the Senate version of the stimulus. Collins complained at the time to CNN that: “There’s funding to help improve our preparedness for a pandemic flu. There is funding to help improve cyber security. What does that have to do with an economic stimulus package?”
Collins read the stimulus legislation, and the threat, wrong. So, too, did Senate Democratic leaders, who compromised with her wrongheaded demands in order to secure support for a watered-down stimulus plan.
In fact, public health spending of this sort has a lot to do with the economy, as the turbulence seen in global markets since the current swine flu outbreak surfaced late last week in Mexico. Hence The Wall Street Journal headline of Monday evening: “Flu Outbreak Depresses Markets.”
On Tuesday morning, CNN International’s World Business Report led with he blunt declaration: “Pandemic Equals Economic Pain.”
The death toll in Mexico and the spread of the disease in the United States is, of course, the most serious concern.
But the economic instability is no small matter. As Reuters reported Monday night:
Oil prices fell more than 2 percent to close to $50 a barrel as investors feared a new blow to an already fragile global economy if trade flows are curbed and manufacturing is hit.
The MSCI world equity index fell 0.8 percent and U.S. stocks also slipped.
Flu fears hit U.S. airline stocks hard as investors worried that the travel industry would suffer. Shares prices for UAL Corp, the parent of United Airlines, shed 14 percent, while Continental Airlines Inc lost 16 percent.
This is what Obey was anticipating when he determined that the pandemic preparedness money should be included in the stimulus bill. And it is the point that Collins is still missing.
Stung by criticism for her anti-preparedness demagoguery during the stimulus debate, Collins was scrambling Monday.
“There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds,” claimed a statement from the Maine Republican’s office.
But, Collins, as the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, has to be aware of the fears expressed by public health advocates after she and other short-sighted senators of both parties – New York Democrat Charles Schumer referred to the pandemic preparedness money as “porky” – eliminated the funding Obey had written into the stimulus legislation.
“It seems that Congress is turning a blind eye to state and local health preparedness,” Dr. Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said after the pandemic preparedness money was stripped from the stimulus. “We are extremely concerned about the diminishing funding for state and local preparedness as well as the removal of all funding for pandemic flu, and the decrease in funding for hospital preparedness,” Dr. Jarris added. “Along with the state budget cuts, this is a matter of losing the infrastructure created over the past several years.”
Collins and her desperate apologists also attempted on Monday – with some success – to peddle the fantasy that the needed money was included in the omnibus appropriations legislation that was approved by Congress a month after the stimulus bill.
“And, in fact, the omnibus appropriations bill that was signed into law in March, less than a month after the stimulus bill, contains $156 million for pandemic influenza research, which is $1.4 million more than the fiscal year 2008 level,” claimed Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley.
That sounds good.
Unfortunately, there are three problems with that statement.
First, Collins voted against the omnibus appropriations bill.
Second, $156 million is a far less than the $870 million that Collins led the fight to remove from the stimulus bill.
Three, there is general agreement among public-health advocates that the fiscal year 2008 funding was dramatically insufficient — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars — so employment of the “1.4 million more” line is a particularly offensive.
Collins is spinning, in the worst Washington way.
Obey remains the hero in this fight.
He worked with President Bush — a good player on these issues — to fund pandemic preparedness.
He tried, appropriately, to include needed resources in the stimulus bill.
Now, he says, he will attach a request for pandemic preparedness money to upcoming emergency appropriations bills.
“Because we need to become prepared as soon as possible, I intend to again request additional funds in the upcoming supplemental,” says the Wisconsin Democrat.
Obey understands something Collins still does not seem to get.
Pandemic preparedness is first and foremost a public health necessity.
But it is, as well, an economic necessity. A vulnerable economy that, hopefully, is struggling toward renewal will not be able to take the hit caused by a flue outbreak that confines workers to their homes, shuts down transportation systems and shutters workplaces.
When Collins ridiculed and attacked the inclusion of pandemic preparedness money in the stimulus bill, she was wrong — wrong from a public health standpoint and wrong from an economic standpoint.
No amount of spin will change this reality. In fact, the lame defenses mustered by Collins’ office compound the wrong, and feed the sense that the senator in more interested in playing politics than living up to her own claim — made as she was seeking to strip the preparedness funds from the stimulus — that “everybody in the room is concerned about a pandemic flu.”
If that’s really the case, Collins should stop spinning and join David Obey in making a commitment to include full funding for pandemic preparedness in the next emergency appropriations bill — and to rally her fellow Republicans in support of that funding.