Funding for Defense vaccine treatment centers in question again

Congress did not specifically fund the network of centers in fiscal 2005, and the Defense Department may not pick up the tab for keeping them in operation.

Funding for a much-praised network that treats military personnel for rare but severe side-effects of anthrax and other vaccines remains uncertain this year, according to a U.S. senator, who has drafted a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking for an explanation.

The Bush administration drew congressional criticism last year from Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., for not including in its fiscal 2005 budget $5.7 million needed for operating the Vaccine Healthcare Center, located at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, and three regional centers in the United States.

Defense Department officials in the fall said the network nevertheless would be funded, according to Bingaman.

"Unfortunately, we now understand that DoD may be considering the VHC Network to be an 'unfunded requirement,' which makes continuation of the program rather precarious," Bingaman wrote in the letter, which he has shared with colleagues but not yet sent to Rumsfeld. "We are asking you to address this matter immediately to ensure continuation of this irreplaceable and valuable asset."

Congress did not specifically fund the network, which began operation in 2001, in fiscal 2004. The Army Medical Department's North Atlantic Regional Medical Command at Walter Reed picked up the tab with money from its own budget. An Army spokeswoman told Global Security Newswire last month that that would be the case again.

"The Vaccine Healthcare Center is supported in FY05 by the Army Medical [Command]'s North Atlantic Regional Medical Command," wrote Medical Command spokeswoman Lyn Kukral.

"The problem is that they [the regional command] are not thrilled to be doing it and certainly don't have to fund it," said a congressional staffer who asked not to be identified.

"The Army does not see why it must fund the VHC's when other departments have their personnel use the services," the staffer added.

Bingaman's letter suggested Pentagon officials are backing away from a promise to legislators last fall. An amendment was proposed in the Senate to specifically authorize money for the network in fiscal 2005.

That provision was abandoned, however, after Defense Department officials assured senators that the network would still be funded, Bingaman said in his letter.

"When an amendment was proposed in the Senate to insert a line-item for VHCs, your department came to us and assured us it was unnecessary and stated DoD appropriations already contained $5 million to support VHC operations," he wrote.

A congressional report accompanying the bill praised the centers, recommended Rumsfeld consider expanding the network, and "strongly encourage[d]" the military services to continue funding the programs.

"This network has been recognized as valuable nonredundant effort that has supported improved care of vaccine related rare adverse events, programs to improve the quality of immunization healthcare, and an infrastructure that supports new vaccine insertion like the smallpox program," Bingaman wrote.