'Fiscal cliff' agreement protects preparedness funds--for now

Jan 2, 2013 (CIDRAP News) – The House of Representative's final approval last night of a deal to stave off severe "fiscal cliff" budget cuts protects public health preparedness funding, at least for the next 2 months.

Lack of an agreement on the measure, which passed the Senate during the early-morning hours yesterday, would have triggered automatic budget cuts beginning today, a key provision of an August 2011 bill that raised the national debt limit.

Among a host of other nondefense jobs and services, the cuts would have seriously affected Public Health Emergency Preparedness (PHEP) grants that help states prepare for and respond to public health threats such as pandemic flu and bioterror attacks.

A July report from Sen Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, estimated that the sequestration would have led to a $48 million reduction in fiscal year 2013 funding for the PHEP grant program, a 7.8% cut.

Though Harkin's July report warned that the cuts would have a destructive impact on programs that affect the middle class, he was one of the few senators who voted against the bill. In a statement yesterday Harkin criticized the bill, which he said includes permanent tax benefits for high-income earners and doesn't do enough to generate new revenue and more jobs.

Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of Trust for America's Health (TFAH), a nonprofit, nonpartisan health advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., told CIDRAP News that most of the fiscal cliff agreement focuses on taxes and revenue, with cuts to be named in the future. For the time being, preparedness funding is safe, he added.

Another legislative issue that TFAH and other public health advocates have been watching in the final hours of the 112th Congress was possible Senate action on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act (PAHPA). First passed in 2006, the reauthorization would continue work on medical countermeasures against chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear threats, as well as programs to bolster the nation's public health preparedness.

On Dec 19 the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that after months of work between House and Senate members reflected common ground between the two chambers, and TFAH urged the Senate to swiftly pass the bill before the end of the year.

Levi said, however, that the Senate did not act on the legislation, which means that it dies and the new Congress, which convenes tomorrow, must start the legislative process to reauthorize PAHPA all over again.

See also:

Dec 19, 2012, CIDRAP News scan "House passes final version of preparedness reauthorization law"

Dec 19, 2012, TFAH statement

Jan 1 Sen Harkin statement

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