$870M From Stimulus Would Have Gone To Fight Influenza; Lawmakers Hold Hearings To Discuss U.S. Response to Swine Flu
As swine influenza cases are confirmed in the U.S., congressional lawmakers are rethinking eliminating $870 million from the economic stimulus package that would have been used to combat an influenza pandemic, USA Today reports. According to USA Today, the funds were eliminated by congressional Democrats in order to garner support from congressional Republicans to pass the stimulus package. Robert Pestronk, executive director of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, called the decision to remove the funds "short-sighted," adding that a lack of federal funding and state budget cuts resulting from the current economic recession have "reduced the ability of state and local governments to cope" with pandemic flu (Schouten, USA Today, 4/28).
Congressional lawmakers and public health advocates have begun calling for increased funds to address the issue. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey (D-Wis.) have said they will push for additional funding to be included in a supplemental war appropriations bill currently moving through Congress (Margetta, CQ Today, 4/27).
However, Harkin and public health experts have said that there is no indication that the removal of the funds from the stimulus significantly slowed pandemic flu preparedness. Harkin spokesperson Kate Cyrul in an e-mail said, "This capacity is not there yet and would not be if we had appropriated the money." She added that "the current outbreak reminds us that we need to be prepared" (USA Today, 4/28). A senior Democratic aide said, "HHS does appear to be well-supplied, but the fact is this was a missed opportunity to be prepared for a crisis like this" (Dennis, Roll Call, 4/28).
Several congressional committees have scheduled hearings this week to discuss the recent outbreak of swine flu, The Hill reports. On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee will hear testimony from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and CDC acting administrator Richard Besser. The hearing will focus on how the government can best coordinate its response to swine flu.
House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said his committee would convene on Thursday to discuss CDC's decision to declare a public health emergency. He said that the panel would seek "to make sure that the health agencies, both federal as well as state and local, have enough recourses to deal with the potential problem of this swine flu outbreak" (Wilson, The Hill, 4/27).
The Obama administration has instructed high-level officials to calm the public regarding the rising number of swine flu cases and illustrate that the U.S. is prepared to address a potential outbreak, the New York Times reports. According to the Times, President Obama has been preparing "behind the scenes" by directing his staff to prepare for an outbreak and by receiving a full report on swine flu along with his daily intelligence briefings, as well as updates throughout the day (Pear/Harris, New York Times, 4/28). Besser said the agency is recommending against non-essential travel to Mexico. In addition, CDC urged businesses, schools and residents to be prepared for the possibility of local cases developing (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 4/27).
FDA on Monday authorized certain emergency uses of antiviral drugs and tests to address cases of swine flu. The authorizations allow CDC to diagnose swine flu using a test that has not yet been formally approved by FDA. The orders also allow physicians to give Tamiflu, a widely used drug made by Roche, to children younger than age one and the inhalant Relenza, made by GlaxoSmithKline, to people suspected of having the swine flu and to hospital patients (Mundy, Wall Street Journal, 4/27).