Zika Funding: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

By: Michaela Keller

In the early morning hours on Thursday, amidst a Democrat led sit-in to protest the House Republicans resistance to vote on gun safety measures, a conference report bill to address the Zika virus was introduced in the House, voted on favorably and sent to the Senate.  The report came after negotiations within a bipartisan conference committee in both the House and Senate, which sought to reconcile the various funding measures proposed to fight Zika, broke down. The conference report package that House members ultimately voted on did not have bipartisan support and the vote, 239-171, was largely along party lines.

In the hours and day that followed, details of the bill emerged, including rhetoric from both parties as to how the bill should proceed. The major pieces of the bill include a top line funding level of $1.1 billion, which is equal to the Senate agreed upon number and higher that the House passed number of $622 million, yet lower than the Administration’s request for $1.9 billion. The package includes $476 million to the CDC for mosquito control, $230 million to NIH for vaccines, $227 for the Public Health Social Services Emergency Fund and $165 million to the State Department and USAID to respond to outbreaks overseas.

While many agreed that the House’s willingness to accept the Senate passed number of $1.1 billion was a step in the right direction, the details of how that money is allocated, and under what provisions, caused immediate backlash from most Democrats. One of the first points of contention is that $750 million of the funding is offset by redirecting funding from unspent Ebola and Affordable Care Act funds as well as about $100 million from HHS’s administration fund. As you may recall from this post, the funding that both the Administration and Senate proposed did not include any offsets. Second, there is concern that the funding provided through Social Service Block Grants for primary care services in areas most affected by Zika is prohibited from being used for contraception and other reproductive health services. Lastly, policy riders related to pesticide use were also raised as red flags for Democrats.

Despite the aforementioned areas of disagreement, NACHC was pleased to see that the bill included $40 million to expand primary care services for health centers in Puerto Rico and other territories as well as $6 million to assign National Health Service Corps members to Puerto Rico and other territories.

By the end of the day on Thursday, Senate leadership proceeded to call for a vote on the conference package, which is scheduled for next week. The Senate will need 60 votes in order to pass the conference report; however, given that Democrats have harshly criticized the funding measure, it is unlikely that the conference report will pass. Additionally, President Obama announced that he would veto the funding measure if it came to his desk in its current form.

When all is said and done next week, Congress will likely be back where it started more than four months ago, without an agreed upon funding mechanism to prevent and respond to the Zika virus.  With the House currently on recess until after the 4th of July and only a few days of regular business scheduled for both chambers before the summer recess period begins on July 15th, there is great uncertainty as to what the path forward is from here. Many speculate that a deal will not be reached in the coming weeks, meaning that the summer will pass before Congress passes a funding bill to address the Zika virus. For additional updates, stay tuned to the Health Centers on the Hill blog.

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