Public health agencies need to be able to respond more quickly, and with less red tape, when a public health emergency such as Ebola or the emerging threat of Zika threaten the United States, according to a bill to be proposed by senators from Louisiana and Hawaii.
U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, are preparing the bill that would give federal health agencies, including the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, the ability to respond to disasters just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency has done for years.
If passed, the law would temporarily wave contract and procurement regulations, and provide an automatic authorization for funding when a public health emergency is declared, Cassidy said.
This everyday bureaucracy is something that came up in the response to Ebola as the CDC struggled while responding to a French-speaking country without the ability to hire French-speaking physicians who could talk to the population.
The proposed bill, Cassidy said, would help cut through the time lag to go through the proper channels while still maintaining accountability after immediate action is necessary.
“If you respond early, proactively with science behind you, you can cut the knees off an impending epidemic,” Cassidy said.
During the past 10 years, there have been a handful of public health emergencies, including H1N1 Flu, also known as swine flu, and Ebola. To respond, CDC administrators had to make their case to Congress to get the additional money to prepare, he said.
“The way we fund public health makes no sense,” Schatz added.
Health officials are reduced to essentially begging for money from Congress instead of spending their time and energy responding to a particular crisis and it is ridiculous, he said.
The need to go to Congress for money also has the potential to make the funding issue partisan, Schatz said, and politics should have no place in responding to public health emergencies.
Ebola funding wasn’t as difficult because it was headlining the news and the public was concerned, Schatz said. With Zika, the mosquito-borne illness that has been linked to birth defects, there isn’t the same kind of public outcry, which makes going through the congressional channels potentially more challenging,
In addition, the bill’s emergency authorization power would allow for a long-term approach, such as allowing the CDC to enter into mosquito control contracts, something they don’t have the authority to do now, Cassidy said.
Final language of the bill is being worked on, but initial estimates indicate that $1.5 billion could be authorized automatically as soon as a health emergency is declared, allowing responding agencies to spend up to this amount. Half of that would come from emergency appropriations while half would come from an assessment of any unobligated money within the agency itself, Cassidy said.
More money could be approved by Congress, if needed, but the automatic authorization would allow work to start more quickly.
Agencies that could access this money after the U.S. Health and Human Services declares a public health emergency include not only the CDC but other response agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health.
The bill is expected to be introduced this week or early next week.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.