World / Science & Health

U.S. officials move to shore up Ebola spending after years of cuts

Bloomberg

Federal authorities are bracing for more Ebola cases in the United States at a time when spending on Ebola research and health emergency preparedness has been on a steady decline.

Even as the U.S. is committing more than $1 billion toward a global fund to battle the virus in West Africa, the total for federal Ebola research — including development of vaccines and treatments — fell to $42.5 million in 2013 after it peaked at more than $59 million in 2006.

Annual funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health preparedness and response programs was $1 billion less in fiscal 2013 than it was in 2002, according to a CDC report.

Now lawmakers from both parties are moving to put more money into stopping the spread of Ebola in the U.S., driven by a greater sense of urgency after a nurse in Dallas was infected with the deadly virus from a patient who later died.

Members of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate plan to put increased funding in a bill that would keep the government operating after current legislation expires on Dec. 11, according to a Senate Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the plans that haven’t been announced. The aide said no decisions had been made on details.

President Barack Obama met with his senior advisers at the White House on Monday afternoon to get an update on the government’s response to the Dallas case and on ensuring the U.S. health care infrastructure is prepared.

The meeting included Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by phone; Susan Rice, national secretary adviser; Secretary Sylvia Burwell of the Department of Health and Human Services and Lisa Monaco, Obama’s homeland security adviser.

The infected nurse was on the team that treated a Liberian man who fell ill after entering the U.S. She contracted Ebola even though she wore the prescribed protective gear. Frieden said Monday he wouldn’t be surprised if another health care worker who cared for the Liberian man contracted Ebola also.

The CDC will “double down on training, outreach, education and assistance,” to keep the disease under control in the U.S., Frieden said in a conference call with reporters.

The Ebola risk in the U.S. may open a debate over government spending on research and preparedness.

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania said Congress must make sure there is enough money to help the nation’s roughly 5,000 hospitals adequately prepare for Ebola cases.

“We have a public health challenge here,” Casey said Monday on Bloomberg Television. Hospitals “need help. They need resources.”

Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, told the Huffington Post that years of flat spending has slowed research, including development of vaccines for infectious diseases such as Ebola.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” Collins said in the Huffington Post interview.

Funding for research on a vaccine for the disease has dropped by half since it peaked in fiscal 2010, to $17.2 million in fiscal 2013, budget figures from the National Institutes of Health show.

Figures show that the agency’s total budget rose 7.7 percent to $29.3 billion in fiscal 2013 from $27.2 billion a decade earlier. The consumer price index rose 24 percent in that period. The figure for 2013 is less than the NIH budget from the year before as automatic budget cuts, known as sequestration, cut spending there by 5.2 percent.

Most of the spending in response to the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where the virus has killed more than 4,000 people, has been directed toward stopping the spread at its source.

That includes $750 million that top congressional leaders approved in a shift of funds in the Pentagon’s contingency budget. The money is earmarked for helping build isolation units, field hospitals and to train health care workers, among other needs. The U.S. is deploying as many as 4,000 military personnel to the region to assist the effort.

On top of that, $311 million has been obligated for the purchase of protective equipment, disease detection and response, community health workers and other anti-Ebola steps, according to the Office of Management and Budget.

Some lawmakers are urging additional actions, including blocking entry into the U.S. of anyone coming from West Africa.

There are about 13,000 visas “that sit in peoples’ hands in Africa to come visit the U.S.,” Rep. Pete Sessions said.

“We are once again asking the administration to re-establish a viewpoint about stopping these flights to the U.S., to give Dallas, Texas, and other communities a chance to catch up and work through this difficult problem,” Sessions, a Texas Republican, said in an interview on CNN.

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a physician, said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program that people from the infected nations ought to wait longer to obtain a U.S. visa.

“Not that you’re going to shut them off, but you do pause things for a little bit,” he said.

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