Zika Funding Plan Announced By Obama Officials; But Why the Long Delay After Congress Finally Voted Them?

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US health officials outlined on Tuesday (October 18, 2016) how they planned to divide up $1.1 billion in funds approved by Congress to fight the Zika virus, including repaying $44.25 million they were forced to borrow from a fund allocated for other emergencies.

US health officials divide up $1.1 billion in funds approved by #Congress to fight the #Zikavirus Click To Tweet

According to Reuters, the funds were borrowed from the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Cooperative, which helps state and local public health departments develop response plans to emergencies, while Congress battled over whether to supply the funds.

President Barack Obama in February requested $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding. Congress approved $1.1 billion in September after months of political bickering.

On a conference call with reporters, health officials said $394 million would go to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, $152 million to the National Institutes of Health and $387 million for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, which supports the nation’s ability to respond to public health emergencies.

A further $40 million is aimed at expanding primary healthcare services in Puerto Rico and other US territories, and $20 million for projects of national and regional significance in those areas.

Puerto Rico has been particularly hard hit by Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that has been linked with a rare birth defect known as microcephaly. The virus has spread to almost 60 countries and territories since the current outbreak was identified last year in Brazil.

As of Oct. 12, more than 29,000 cases of Zika infection had been reported in the United States and territories. Of those, more than 2,600 cases are in pregnant women. Nearly 26,000 of those cases are in Puerto Rico and other US territories.

The government will be allocating funds, based on a competitive process, to support Zika virus surveillance and other programs. The funds will also be used to expand mosquito control, continue vaccine development and begin studies on the effect of Zika on babies born to infected mothers.

Steve’s Take: After covering this reprehensible, seven-month display of partisan politics triumphing over an immediate, dire threat to our nation’s health, on Sept. 29, when President Obama signed the Congressional authorization for funds to battle Zika, I thought–hooray; finally!

But today, learning that the Obama administration is just getting around to allocating the $1.1 billion to the appropriate federal health agencies and state authorities–nearly 3 weeks after the funding bill was signed–I am truly hard-pressed for additional comment.

Steve's Take: It is shameful it has taken 3+ weeks to release funds to fight #Zikavirus Click To Tweet

But here’s my brief take on this pervasive lunacy in our government. And I do mean the legislative and executive branches and both primary political camps.

Over those seven months, Congress was content to play political football with peripheral issues, like the Republicans demanding the defunding of Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico as a condition of a deal, an absolute non-starter for Democrats, and which stopped progress on getting funds into the hands of the scientists working on a vaccine.

Those heartless Republicans, I thought to myself, holding the health of us commoners hostage to the pro-life group. The last thing I expected was for the administration to apparently be dithering in forging a funding allocation plan while all the while railing about how the Zika virus was spreading inexorably across the nation on its own timetable, with Republicans apparently content to sit on their hands–right through the recess.

Here’s how the Obama camp defends the delay in spending the Zika funds. In a nutshell, administration officials said they couldn’t provide the money immediately to states and localities to fight the virus, according to the Washington Examiner.

“There is a process for being able to spend money within the federal level within guidelines,” said Kevin Griffis, assistant secretary for public affairs for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The response comes after months of top administration officials sounding the alarm that Zika priorities such as a vaccine or staffing would be in jeopardy if Congress didn’t approve funding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that it can provide funding to localities based only on federal grant guidelines.

“We don’t have the authority to spread checks without going through a process for allowing competition for that,” said Sherri Berger, CDC’s chief operating officer.

President Obama initially sought $1.9 billion from Congress in February. However, disagreements over the amount and whether any money should go to Planned Parenthood clinics in hard-hit Puerto Rico meant that funding wasn’t approved until September as part of a short-term spending deal.

The CDC also responded to questions about whether it had any spending plan at all, since it was known for months that Congress was considering spending $1.1 billion and not $1.9 billion as originally proposed. “

We do have a spending plan, but the spending [in the plan] exceeded what was made through the supplemental,” Berger said. “We are waiting for the final funding level to post those opportunities for state funding.”

The administration didn’t elaborate on how much was in its initial spending plan and what it received instead from Congress.

My experience with government spokespeople is that if they don’t elaborate on something, it’s usually because there isn’t anything upon which to elaborate. Although this gives me a queasy feeling (and I hope there aren’t any Zika-bearing mosquitoes nearby), I believe the administration spent much of its time thrashing Republicans for delaying the urgent, life-saving monies instead of crafting a spending plan ready to be triggered the instant funding was signed into law.

Case in point.

In gauging Congress’s apparent lack of comprehension of what’s at stake with funding the war on Zika, CDC Director Frieden said:

“I think we’ll look at this delay in time and say, ‘How could they have waited so long?’ This was so urgent. It was the very definition of an emergency. Not only is this unanticipated, it’s unprecedented. It’s potentially catastrophic, and it’s certainly that for the kind of brain damage we’re seeing.”

So, one of the administration’s top health officials is saying, in effect, “Every minute counts,” in getting the funds needed to protect us against Zika. I rest my case.

Indeed, our government is a big, complex contraption divided into three branches, the executive, legislative and judicial. But it should work together smoothly and quickly when our health as US citizens is truly in peril and not be brushed aside like it was these past seven and a half months.

The endless wrangling over funding Planned Parenthood marked a special insult, regardless of which camp you’re in, politically; especially where our women and unborn children were and are most at risk to Zika.

While first Congressional representatives, and now the administration itself, have played to their particular political constituencies on side issues, the Zika virus has continued to spread on its own time clock. Totally baffling, meanwhile, the health, indeed the very lives, of Americans, has been neglected.