As swine flu hits, Republican cuts in funds put nation at peril

WASHINGTON—Public health advocates urged the Obama administration and Congress to restore quickly $870 million in emergency flu pandemic funding stripped from the president’s economic stimulus package in February at the insistence of Republican Senators.

There was praise here for President Obama’s quick response, declaring an “emergency” in the swine flu outbreak that has killed 148 people in Mexico and has now spread to the U.S. and around the world. There is fear of a pandemic like the influenza that struck in 1918 killing 40-50 million people. The flu strain that erupted in Mexico is a hybrid of swine, avian, and human viruses for which humans have no natural immunity. Scientists are racing to collect “seed stock” so they can begin producing vaccines for the deadly virus strain code named H1N1.

Americans United for Change (AUC) said the $870 million cutback is more proof that the Republicans are the “Party of No.” AUC Acting Director, Tom McMahon, asked the GOP lawmakers “if they have any regrets for insisting that $870 million for pandemic preparation by stripped from the stimulus package to pay for tax cuts for millionaires.”

The Trust For America’s Health (TFAH), convened a telephone media briefing April 27, to urge Congress to restore the funds and provide an additional $350 million annually to bolster the state and local public health system hammered by Bush-era budget cuts. TFAH Executive Director, Jeffrey Levi said the money should be rushed through as an emergency supplemental.

TFAH points out that essentially the money removed from the stimulus package was the “final installment” of the $7.1 billion in President George W. Bush’s pandemic preparedness package approved in 2005. The last of that money “went out the door last August.”

Now there is “no more pandemic preparedness money in the pipeline for state and local public health agencies,” TFAH warned. “In addition to the cutoff of pandemic flu funding, public health agencies have seen their “all hazards’ preparedness funding drop about 25 percent since 2005.” TFAH estimates that public health agencies across the country suffer a combined $20 billion shortfall each year.

Dr. Paul Jerris, MD, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Organizations, said state and local public health agencies have been forced to lay off about 12,000 health care workers just as the swine flu epidemic begins to hit.

“They are shifting resources from one function to another to meet this outbreak,” Jerris said. “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. This is a matter of losing the infrastructure created over the past several years.” Jerris praised the gains at the federal level in preparing to cope with a pandemic especially by the Center for Disease Control. But he added, “Just having those things is not enough. How do we get that to the American people? That’s why we’re asking for the $350 million for state and local preparedness. ”

State budgets are “under siege” he said and many highly trained emergency medical responders “are losing their jobs” just when they are desperately needed, he said. “These are the boots on the ground.”

Robert Pestronk, Executive Director, National Association of City and County Health Officials said 10,000 public health workers were terminated in 2008 and another 10,000 will lose their jobs in 2009. “This is a situation of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’” he said. “We expect a vigorous response but the suit may not be on anybody’s back. There are big holes in their budgets. We can’t defend the health of the American people on resourcefulness alone.”

Republican lawmakers attacked pandemic funding on grounds that it has nothing to do with the economy. Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine told her colleagues, “Everybody in this room is concerned about a pandemic flu. But does it belong in this bill? Should we have $870 million in this bill. No we should not.”

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-WI) had warned that if a pandemic strikes, workers could be ordered to stay at home, factories could be shuttered, to prevent the spread of the disease—a warning that is coming true with a vengeance in Mexico City.

In his FY 2010 Federal Budget, Obama requests $8.6 billion for the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The Department of Health and Human Services in January awarded a $487 million contract to build the first U.S.-based manufacturing facility to produce stem cell-based flu vaccine. It will increase vaccine production by 25 percent. Cell-based flu vaccines can be cultured much faster than traditional egg-based production.

The Service Employees International Union assailed Senate Republicans for blocking confirmation of former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services at a time of a national health emergency. “They’re playing politics with the health of our nation and it could end up costing us lives,” said SEIU Online Campaign Manager, Jessica Kutch.