Durbin, Senators Introduce Bipartisan Bill To Help Fund Responses To Public Health Emergencies As Global Threat Of Coronavirus

CHICAGO—U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) joined Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) to introduce the Public Health Emergency Response and Accountability Act, bipartisan legislation to create a permanent funding mechanism to ensure quick and effective responses to future public health emergencies.

“When a public health emergency hits, we need immediate and sufficient funding to save lives,” said Durbin.  “With this legislation, our federal health agencies can get ahead of public health threats before they become emergencies.  I’m proud to work on a bipartisan basis to ensure that when the next coronavirus, Zika, or Ebola crisis breaks, the federal government is ready to respond.”

Public health challenges such as Zika, Ebola, and now coronavirus, will continue to arise, 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.  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.  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.

This Public Health Emergency Response and Accountability Act 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.

Joining Durbin, Schatz, and Cassidy in introducing the bill are Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Angus King (I-ME).