'No Time to Waste'

AAFP, Other Groups Press Congress to Act Fast on Zika Funding

June 17, 2016 04:43 pm Cindy Borgmeyer

The AAFP joined three other medical specialty groups in writing to leaders of a congressional conference committee this week, urging them "in the strongest possible terms to quickly reconcile the House and Senate Zika bills."

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At stake is urgently needed funding for the nation's response to the Zika virus that has spread swiftly throughout many areas of the globe and now poses a "grave risk to Americans, especially to pregnant women and their fetuses who may be at risk of severe birth defects and, more broadly, to women of child-bearing age who may become pregnant," according to the letter.

The June 14 letter(1 page PDF), signed by AAFP President Wanda Filer, M.D., M.B.A., of York, Pa., as well as leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Physicians and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, was sent to Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chair of the House Committee on Appropriations and the conference committee chair; Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee; Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations; and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Story Highlights
  • The AAFP and three other medical specialty groups urged leaders of a congressional conference committee to quickly reconcile the House and Senate Zika funding bills.
  • The conference committee chair acknowledged that with mosquito season looming, House and Senate negotiators need to work quickly.
  • House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has said a vote could come as early as next week if the conferees produce a final report by then.

Declaring that, "There is simply no time to waste," the groups pointed out that illness among travelers exposed to the virus who have returned to the United States is rapidly proliferating and that cases of Zika virus infection in the U.S. territories now number more than 1,300. And all this is occurring just as the nation enters the summer season when mosquitos flourish, the letter observed.

It was a point not lost on Rogers, who in a June 15 press release(appropriations.house.gov) acknowledged the urgency of the task facing conference committee members.

"Here, at the onset of this conference, I will state unequivocally that it is imperative that we complete our negotiations quickly," he said. "With mosquito season upon us, these Zika dollars must get out the door now to help control the spread of this disease.

"In addition, funds are needed immediately to continue longer term efforts to stop this disease, such as vaccine and treatment development and deployment."

It's not the first time the AAFP has reached out to congressional leaders to push for funding to meet the Zika virus threat. In April, the Academy and scores of other health and advocacy organizations appealed to a dozen key lawmakers(6 page PDF) in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle "to immediately provide emergency supplemental funding to prepare for and respond to the Zika virus here in the United States."

Furthermore, said the groups, "We also urge that Congress provide new funding rather than repurpose money from other high-priority programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies that ensure our health security and public health preparedness."

Indeed, concerns about where Zika funding would come from -- in addition to the overall amount of funding -- have proven to be a significant sticking point among lawmakers. As a result, President Obama's original $1.9 billion request has been whittled down to $1.1 billion in the Senate(www.congress.gov) and $622 million in the House(www.congress.gov).

It's worth noting that the $1.1 billion Senate figure came thanks to a deal(www.blunt.senate.gov) brokered by Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair and co-chair, respectively, of the appropriations committee's Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies. Together, the two legislators introduced and helped shuttle through an amendment to H.R. 2577(www.congress.gov), the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2017.

"While we were encouraged that each chamber of Congress passed its own legislation to address the Zika issue and that a conference committee was convened," said the Academy and other groups in their June 14 letter, "those efforts have still yet to yield an agreement that would deliver the emergency funding and resources necessary to fully and robustly respond to the Zika virus."

Although it's true that members of the conference committee clearly have their work cut out for them -- given some lawmakers' continuing calls to offset all or part of whatever funding amount is eventually agreed to -- progress is being made.

"I am optimistic," AAFP senior government relations representative Teresa Baker told AAFP News. "There's a tremendous amount of interest in getting this done before the Independence Day recess, so that bodes well." Indeed, she added, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Thursday(www.rollcall.com) a vote in the House could come as early as next week if House and Senate negotiators manage to produce a final conference report by then.

Related AAFP News Coverage
AAFP Presses Congress for Urgent Funding to Fight Zika Virus

More From AAFP
Zika Virus Outbreak

Additional Resource
CDC: Zika Virus(www.cdc.gov)