Anthrax vaccine treatment funding remains uncertain

A Senate effort to ensure full funding of special U.S. military centers for treating soldiers suffering side effects from anthrax and other vaccinations failed last week, leaving open the question of whether the clinics will be fully funded in this fiscal year.

Senate leaders negotiated away an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill for fiscal 2005 that would have provided $6 million for four regional Vaccine Healthcare Centers in the United States that offer treatment and advice on rare but serious side effects from the vaccine.

The Senate instead included a nonbinding statement of support for full funding in the bill, which was approved Thursday.

The Army earlier this year said it would transfer $5.7 million to the centers from another account, but Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor expressed concern that the absence of confirmed funding could hurt personnel in other military services.

"The centers are in danger of losing part of their funding this fiscal year," he said when he introduced the amendment Wednesday.

"I am very concerned that the funding this year is being redirected because other services have not budgeted for the centers' work, despite the fact that 46 percent of their cases were related to Air Force, Navy, and Marines personnel," Biden added.

The main Vaccine Healthcare Center, located at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was created in 2001. Three additional satellite centers were opened at U.S. bases last year, at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., the Womack Army Medical Center at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and the Air Force's Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Together they received $5 million for fiscal year 2004 and sought $5.7 million for this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2004, and ends on Sept. 30.

Praised last year by two senior defense officials, the centers have not been included in the Army's long-term budget plans or in congressional appropriations bills. They have relied instead on funding transfers in recent years from other Army programs.

A statement released in January by the Walter Reed Army Medical Center said The U.S. Army Medical Command, through its North Atlantic Regional Medical Command, would "underwrite the $5.7 million operation" this fiscal year. Biden's amendment would have appropriated an additional $6 million to the centers by taking the money out of other defense-wide funding in the bill, for the " Global War on Terror Partners Fund," which provides economic assistance to some countries allied in counterterrorism efforts.

"Clearly, force protection in this time of war demands a good vaccination program. Equally clear, that program must include quality care for those who suffer adverse events in every service, not just the Army," he said.

Anthrax vaccinations were required for military personnel until last October, when a federal judge banned mandatory vaccinations, ruling the Food and Drug Administration had not properly reviewed the drug when it licensed it as safe and effective against inhalation anthrax. The judge reiterated last month that the vaccines could be administered voluntarily, though the military so far has not resumed inoculations.