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Sept. 2 — Two Republican senators said HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell sidestepped questions on “billions” of dollars in unspent money that they said could pay for the Zika response.
“The Administration is quick to seek more money for the Zika response but stonewalls questions on why existing funds can’t be redirected to the response,” Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) said in a Sept. 2 statement. “It also declines to explain why the whole apparatus that’s in place to protect against these kinds of outbreaks seems to be caught so flat-footed by Zika.”
The joint statement by the Grassley and Lankford, who sit on the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees, respectively, is the latest development in a more than six-month partisan battle over whether and how to fund the $1.9 billion emergency funding request that President Barack Obama made in February to combat the mosquito-borne virus. The Senate is scheduled to hold another cloture vote on Sept. 6.
Grassley and Lankford added that they will continue to push the Obama administration to look for money it already has to combat Zika.
“Responding to Zika is critically important, and failing to respond to legitimate funding questions hurts the cause and the Administration’s credibility,” they said.
The comments stem from correspondence over the past week between the two senators and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Grassley and Lankford sent a letter dated Aug. 26 to Burwell, arguing that “the facts belie” statements she and other health officials have made that funding for the Zika vaccine is running out.
Burwell transferred $81 million within the HHS on Aug. 11 to prevent work stoppage on the Zika response at the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. Anthony S. Fauci, who has been leading the NIH's Zika response, said that money will run out again at the end of September (10 LSLR 18, 9/16/16).
In their letter, the senators said the HHS is expected to have nearly $21 billion in unobligated funds when the 2016 fiscal year ends Sept. 30. Unobligated funds are monies that have been appropriated but remain uncommitted by contract at the end of a fiscal period.
They asked whether there was a legal impediment that prevents the HHS from using these funds for a Zika response, if Burwell has used her authority to transfer money for Zika, and if the Obama administration has prioritized Zika research and prevention over other projects.
“We urge you to act and use funding available to ensure our nation is prepared,” they said.
In her response letter dated Sept. 1, Burwell said she repurposed $374 million in April primarily from Ebola accounts to fund the nation's Zika response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NIH and BARDA. She then went into detail about how each agency is responding to Zika and made the case for why they need more funding.
Burwell said the HHS has exhausted all options to provide short-term financing to fight Zika and that funds from all three agencies will be “virtually exhausted” by the end of the fiscal year.
“Our nation's ability to mount the type of Zika response that the American people deserve sits squarely on Congress,” she wrote.
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