Senators Question HHS Officials on Flu Preparedness Efforts
Congress will provide additional funding for preparation for a pandemic flu after lawmakers receive "assurances from public health officials about how existing flu-readiness funds are being used," members of the Senate Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee said during a hearing on Tuesday, CongressDaily reports. President Bush last year requested $7.1 billion to prepare the U.S. for a possible outbreak of pandemic flu, but lawmakers included only $3.8 billion of the request in the fiscal year 2006 Department of Defense spending bill (Heil, CongressDaily, 1/31).
HHS will spend about $3.3 billion of the amount on creating countermeasures, training health officials and stockpiling supplies like face masks, according to John Agwunobi, assistant secretary for health at HHS. About $350 million will be given directly to states for their preparations (Barrett, CQ HealthBeat, 1/31).
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said on Tuesday that lawmakers will include the remaining $3.3 billion in a supplemental spending bill in March or April "if we get the assurance that putting it up will make a difference." Stevens and other subcommittee members also said HHS officials are not working quickly enough to determine whether liability protections given to vaccine manufacturers are successfully encouraging companies to re-enter the U.S. vaccine market.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that compensating individuals potentially harmed by a flu vaccine or treatment should be given as much priority as providing liability protection, calling on Congress to appropriate funds for such a compensation system (CongressDaily, 1/31). He also questioned a plan to require states to pay 75% of the cost of purchasing antiviral treatments and said researchers should consider RNA-based solutions for creating new vaccines. State officials from Iowa and Pennsylvania echoed his call for increased federal funding (CQ HealthBeat, 1/31).
Subcommittee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said flu preparations generally are falling behind and urged HHS officials to act with a sense of urgency. CDC Director Julie Gerberding said the U.S. is on track to have enough antiviral medications stockpiled by 2008 to treat 25% of the population (CongressDaily, 1/31).