Spending bill cuts pandemic preparedness budget request

The fiscal 2008 Consolidated Appropriations Act working its way through Congress this week allocates only $76 million for pandemic influenza preparedness funding for the Health and Human Services Department, though the Bush administration requested a budget of $870 million for it.

The bill also chopped in half requested funding for the HHS office managing efforts to develop a national electronic health record system.

While House and Senate appropriations committees said they continue to support HHS pandemic flu preparation efforts, they indicated in the bill that they decided to cut the 2008 pandemic preparation budget because approximately $1.2 billion remains available from funds provided in previous appropriations.

Meanwhile, HHS' Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which is charged with spearheading nationwide adoptions of electronic health records, saw its requested funding chopped almost in half, from $118 million to $61 million, equal to its 2007 budget.

In addition, the National Disaster Medical System, the HHS office that serves as a clearinghouse for assisting state and local authorities in dealing with the medical impact of major peacetime disasters, had its budget request cut by $6 million to $47 million.

In an effort to battle pandemic flu, the White House launched a massive program in June 2005 to purchase and stockpile influenza vaccines and antiviral medications, develop systems to detect and contain disease outbreaks globally, and develop plans and policies to manage disease outbreak in the United States.

Though President Bush asked for $7.1 billion in funding for pandemic preparedness funding in his 2006 budget, Congress provided only $5.6 billion in the 2006 Emergency Supplemental Bill and none in 2007.

The White House said in its report on the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza released in June that "although the visibility of avian influenza and pandemic preparedness has waned in the media, the threat of avian influenza and the potential for an influenza pandemic has not."

Trust for America's Health, a Washington based nonprofit with expertise in the public health field, said in a report released Tuesday that Congress has failed to deliver a sustained financial commitment for preparedness, especially at the state and local levels. The trust stated: "The continuing trend of annual cuts in federal funding for state and local preparedness activities threatens the nation's safety."

The trust, along with the American Public Health Association, American Red Cross and a number of other organizations that are members of the Working Group on Pandemic Influenza Preparedness, urged the House and Senate Appropriations Committees in a letter this October to fully fund the $870 million pandemic preparedness budget.

Rich Hamburg, director of government relations for the trust, said to date only 18 million doses of antiviral medications have been stockpiled of the 50 million believed needed and Congress will have to provide additional finding through an emergency supplemental appropriation.

The omnibus appropriations bill does provide $158 million in funds to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for pandemic preparedness, including quarantine stations and disease surveillance systems, Hamburg said.

Ambassador John E. Lange, U.S. special representative on avian and pandemic influenza, told the New Delhi International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza earlier this month that the highly pathogenic H5N1 flu virus already has infected 300 people worldwide, and he warned, "the threat of a worldwide human influenza pandemic persists."

The White House pandemic flu strategy said, "Critical gaps remain with respect to real-time disease detection and clinical surveillance in the United States. The federal government must redouble its efforts for developing real-time surveillance to ensure that we are not blind during the next pandemic."

Despite the need for disease surveillance systems, the omnibus spending bill cut 2008 funding for BioSense, a CDC program intended to improve the nation's capabilities for conducting near real-time disease suirveillance to $35 million from the requested $57 million.

BioSense collects information on patient symptoms and drugs treatment from 350 urban hospitals and military and Veterans Affairs Department hospitals. But after three years of development and $230 million in funding, it still lacks "real time capability and has issued a stream of false alarms that would be comical of the stakes were not so high," the trust said in its report.

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