WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Angus King (I-ME) introduced the Public Health Emergency Response and Accountability Act, S. 3309. This bipartisan legislation will create a permanent fund to enable quick and effective responses to future public health emergencies.
“Future public health emergencies like the coronavirus are bound to occur. As the coronavirus epidemic shows – an early, fast and effective response saves lives. This bipartisan legislation would provide immediate funding to respond quickly and comprehensively to protect the United States,” said Dr. Cassidy.
Public health emergencies such as Zika, Ebola, and now the coronavirus, are inevitable and the ability to respond to them in a timely fashion is critical. The common pattern over the years has been similar in each case – an outbreak of infectious disease or other public health emergency occurs, and the world community is taken by surprise. As media coverage intensifies, public fear rises. The U.S. Congress responds by scrambling to combat the threat through the appropriation of billions of dollars in emergency funds, and sometimes – as was the case with Zika – delaying appropriating funds while congressional debate ensues. Then, as media coverage fades, public concern subsides. This pattern is both financially ineffective and dangerous to public health.
A better approach than this inefficient pattern would be to implement a permanent ability for federal response agencies—including the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other federal departments – to respond proactively to better track and get ahead of infectious diseases and other public health emergencies before they spread or get out of control.
This legislation would provide automatic funding for the existing Public Health Emergency Fund in section 319 of the Public Health Service Act based on a formula that is similar to the budget authority provided for FEMA. These funds would be available for response after a public health emergency regarding an infectious disease, bioterrorist attack, or disaster that is declared by the HHS secretary, which guarantees that the money will be used to address truly imminent threats to public health. Additionally, the bill includes safeguards that the funding will be spent according to best practices learned from previous responses to public health emergencies, appropriated based on historic needs, and properly accounted for through robust accountability and oversight mechanisms for expended funds.
These funds would carry emergency authorities to the agencies that use them, including transfer authority, flexible hiring, exemption from certain administration restrictions, and flexible contracting authorities to enable a timely response to the threat.