A Case for the Public Health Emergency Fund

via Presidencia de la República Mexicana, Flickr

via Presidencia de la República Mexicana, Flickr

In August 2015, a physician in Brazil noticed that a patient’s microcephaly did not display the characteristics associated with normal causes of the disease. As additional cases were presented to the physician, the Zika virus was eventually identified as the cause. Today, this disease is dangerously close to becoming an epidemic in the United States.

This is not the first time that a public health crisis has caught the attention of America, or the world, even recently in September 2014, when for the first time a patient on American soil was diagnosed as having Ebola. The ensuing mishandling of the crisis by hospital administrators and federal officials enraptured the public’s attention. However the largest debate wasn’t over treatment protocols. Despite the great advances in biotechnology and medicine, the biggest roadblock of all in creating a credible response to public health emergencies is funding.

Similar to the questions raised by Ebola in October 2014, there is discussion on how much should be spent to combat the threat of Zika. The Obama administration has asked for $1.9 billion, with the Senate having approved $1.1 billion and the House $622 million. Negotiations are set to begin next week, where the chambers will decide on a final number. However, should the funding of defenses against harmful diseases and the prevention of epidemics be up for debate? What if there was a public health emergency fund to prevent this debate in the first place? The thing is, there is one.

In 1983, Congress created the public health emergency fund, but has only used it once: in 1993 in response to the hantavirus outbreaks in the Southwest U.S. The fund is authorized to hold $45 million, but currently only holds $57,000. On Feb 2, 2016 Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced legislation (H.R. 4525) to provide $5 billion in supplemental appropriations to the public health emergency fund. Similarly, Senators Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) announced on June 9 that they will propose an amendment to the Department of Labor – Health and Human Services appropriations bill that would create funds for public health emergencies, such as the Zika virus.

Under current policy, the funds for public health emergencies are contingent upon congressional appropriations. This is a detriment to the fast, efficient response that is necessary in a public health crisis. It has been nearly 4 months since the President requested funds and 10 months since the initial associations between Zika and birth defects were suspected. Yet Congress has not reached a consensus on how much money to spend fighting it. In the Constitution, Congress has the power to “provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.” Establishing a dependable fund that is readily available during public health crises would certainly go a long way to securing said welfare.