Before the Congressional recess: Before the Congress left Washington for their summer recess, I reported on the partisan battle over additional funding to combat a potential ZIKA virus public health crisis (SSCI HeLP line for June 2016). Recall that the Obama Administration requested $1.9 billion in new emergency funding, and the Congress worked that number down to a $1.1 billion funding request by removing funds not directly related to the ZIKA crisis. Unfortunately, Congress was not able to pass the Senate compromise bill, despite a 52-48 vote in favor of the bill–recall that to advance through the Senate, a bill must receive 60 votes in favor of the bill. I also wrote that as much as $622 million of unused Ebola appropriations could be repurposed to support ZIKA eradication and research. This is about half the amount contained in the compromise bill that was defeated in the Senate, but it is still a great deal of money to initiate action on this emerging public crisis.
Current status of ZIKA expenditures: The Obama Administration and the CDC have repurposed successfully over $600 million to be used to combat ZIKA. However, the Administration has disbursed only about one-half of its reprogramed dollars or about $201 million. Similarly, the CDC has released a little more than $100 million (again about one-half) of its available funds. As of early August, the Executive branch Office of Management and Budget confirmed that $385 million of repurposed funding is available for the Administration to allocate to the fight against a potential ZIKA outbreak. If the public health situation is dire, and if the funding need is urgent, how is it that the Administration is not disbursing all of the available funds rather than just half? This is as lot of money, hundreds of millions! In the August 3 editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, the editorial writers assert that the Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Hall attributed the delay of disbursing available funds to combat this urgent public health crisis to “bureaucratic federal procurement regulations”. Is it unconscionable, or not, that the Administration cannot manage to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars already in its accounts to combat this emerging ZIKA outbreak because of “bureaucratic federal procurement regulations”? How can the President berate the Congress for going on recess and not doing its job, when the Administration is not doing its job either! This partisan political story just gets worse and worse while a public health emergency festers. In fact, the CDC recently issued its first ever travel alert in the US for parts of Miami concerning the increased risk of ZIKA infection, especially for pregnant women.
Government fails us: The Congress has failed to appropriate what the Administration asserts is the necessary funding to combat an emerging ZIKA public health crisis. The Administration has failed to disburse the hundreds of millions of dollars languishing in OMB accounts. Sounds to me like the gridlock in Congressional is being matched now by bureaucratic ineptitude in the Executive branch. This has to be the quintessential example of the government and our elected officials failing us, their constituents! Perhaps after a crisis develops, Congress will pass a bill with any needed additional funds. Perhaps if a crisis develops, the President will sign the bill and then instruct his executive departments to disburse the funds appropriately and expeditiously. Of course, each branch of our government will blame the other branch for their public health failure! Will the public’s health suffer because the ZIKA issue has become a “political football” in the midst of a major election year where the parties seem to be focused on scoring political points rather than on serving the public’s health?