Burwell Moves to Divert Funds as Zika Cash Runs Out

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By Jeannie Baumann

Aug. 11 — The NIH is diverting about $34 million from programs such as cancer and diabetes to pay for the agency's Zika response in lieu of a congressional appropriation.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell is using her secretarial authority to transfer the funds within different accounts at the National Institutes of Health before the agency runs out of money at the end of the month. Another $47 million for the Zika response at the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority will draw from money at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and agencies to alleviate poverty and support mental health programs—a move Burwell described as “raiding other worthy government programs to temporarily avoid these delays.”

Disputes Over Funding Legislation

“[T]he lack of a clean, bipartisan Zika funding bill has left me no choice but to move forward with this action at this time,” Burwell wrote in a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) about the transfer, which totals $81 million altogether.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said the HHS's transfer of funds to fight Zika is a move that he and the Republican-led House have been calling for. However, Rogers referred to $76.6 million, not $81 million, being transferred.

Rogers added: “As we’ve seen around the globe and now within our own borders, the Zika virus is a deadly and devastating epidemic that must be stopped in its tracks. That is why the House has twice passed responsible, immediate funding legislation for vaccine development, mosquito control, and public health efforts. These much-needed funds have been blocked at every turn by Democrats in the Senate, with the backing of the Obama White House.”


The $34 million stopgap transfer will allow NIH scientists to continue developing a Zika vaccine, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the NIH, said during an Aug. 11 Zika briefing organized by the Alliance for Health Reform.

“All of it is extremely damaging to the entire biomedical research enterprise,” Fauci said. “We're taking away money from cancer, diabetes, those kinds of things.”

But the amount still falls nearly $196 million short of what the NIH has requested to conduct all of its vaccine work, both Fauci and Burwell said in their respective comments.

Zika funding has been caught in a partisan battle since the White House made a $1.9 billion request in February. Congress adjourned for summer recess without resolving differences over how to fund the request, and partisan finger-pointing has continued since then (10 LSLR 15, 7/22/16).

Dwindling Funds

The transfer comes less than a week after Burwell said both the NIH and BARDA will exhaust by the end of August all the money they received from repurposed Ebola funds back in the spring (10 LSLR 16, 8/5/16). Initial human testing on a potential Zika vaccine began Aug. 3, and the transfer will fund the work necessary to prepare for the critical safety and effectiveness testing known as a phase II trial.

“We’ve already used up the money I borrowed from myself, used up the money that the secretary allowed me to spend from other accounts,” Fauci said, referring to the repurposed funds the White House authorized in April. “If I don’t get additional money—literally within the next days to weeks—then what’s going to happen is the transition to the phase II trial will get dramatically delayed and may not even be able to forward.”

NIH Director Francis S. Colllins will decide how to administer the $34 million transfer, but Fauci said he expects there will be a pro-rated amount based on the budget of each institute and center. With more than $5 billion in annual funds, the National Cancer Institute is the largest NIH institute, and Fauci said, “you’re not going to take the same amount from the cancer institute that you’re going to take from a smaller institute. So it’ll be done in as fair a way as possible.”

BARDA, the government agency charged with developing medical countermeasures, also was set to run out of Zika funds by the end of August.

Democrats: End Congressional Recess

On the same day as the briefing, a group of House Democrats called on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to reconvene their chamber to fund the Zika response.

“This is a public health emergency,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), the top Democrat on the labor-health appropriations subcommittee, said. “Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will stand up and talk about how we need to spend money for biomedical research, but NIH is going to have to shift some of that money in order to deal with Zika. And if they don’t, vaccine development will be stopped dead in its tracks. They’re forcing HHS to take money from other public health programs to continue to pay for diagnostics, so that we know the scope of the Zika outbreak. The money is running out and our public health officials cannot combat this virus without additional funding.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at rkubetin@bna.com

For More Information

Burwell's letter is at http://src.bna.com/hFg.

More information on the Alliance for Health Reform's briefing is at http://www.allhealth.org/briefing_detail.asp?bi=399; a video is expected to be posted later at https://www.youtube.com/user/AllHealthReform.

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