WASHINGTON — Addressing the federal government’s failures during the Covid-19 pandemic has fallen off the priority list in Congress this year, according to three lobbyists and a congressional aide following the talks.
Though Congress looked poised for progress this spring — with rare, bipartisan interest in shoring up the nation’s pandemic infrastructure — that action has been delayed as Democrats tussle over massive bills containing President Biden’s domestic agenda and averting a government shutdown and financial crisis. If this Congress does eventually take action to improve public health response, it isn’t likely to happen until next year.
Already, the federal government’s failures to prepare for a pandemic cost more than 700,000 American lives over the last 18 months. Public health experts have decried outdated data systems and supply chain vulnerabilities, and warned that without legislative action, all those problems will persist until the next crisis. They see a rare but fleeting opportunity to break the cycle of ignoring public health funding until times of crisis.
Leading the way on the effort are Senate health committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The pair had hoped to put together a draft of their legislative priorities by late summer this year, but three lobbyists and a congressional aide said it may not be ready until late this year or early 2022. Murray said in a written statement that the pair has made steady progress with the goal of releasing a bill “in the coming weeks.”
If the bill is delayed, that means it would miss opportunities to be folded into three massive legislative vehicles expected to move this year: a government funding bill, an infrastructure bill, and a catch-all package containing other Democratic policy priorities. The outlook for the next legislative year is still hazy, but bills are generally harder to pass in election years and most policymaking nowadays happens in large packages.
Murray said in a brief interview with STAT at the Capitol on Wednesday that she is still optimistic about its prospects.
“We have a lot on our plate right now. I’m not too worried about it passing at the end of the day,” Murray said.
Though the timeline might be delayed, talks are ongoing. Eric Lander, the Cabinet official who leads the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been engaged in talks, one congressional aide said. Lander released his own $65 billion biosecurity plan in September aimed at developing and manufacturing vaccines, treatments, and tests more quickly. It calls for new money for laboratory capacity, viral detection mechanisms, and early warning systems.
The White House did not respond to an inquiry about Lander’s involvement in talks.
If legislative progress on bolstering pandemic preparedness has been slower than expected in the Senate, it’s been virtually nonexistent in the House. A spokesperson for the Energy & Commerce Committee declined to comment on whether the panel, which is the House counterpart to Murray and Burr’s committee, has any plans to pursue pandemic preparedness legislation.
Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), a co-chair of the Pandemic Preparedness Caucus launched in August 2020, introduced a bill Monday with Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) that would address health care workforce shortages in the biopreparedness and infectious disease fields, and a spokesperson for Trahan said she is working to draft another, separate bill to create a supply chain tracking system for medical supplies.
There is a looming deadline on the horizon next year: Burr’s retirement after the 2022 midterm elections. Earlier in his Senate career, Burr wrote the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which created the federal offices known as ASPR and BARDA that have been at the center of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lobbyists and stakeholders said passing a pandemic preparedness bill including lessons learned from Covid-19 will likely be a legacy issue for the senator.
“This is something Senator Burr wants to do before he retires. I don’t think there is urgency to get it done right this millisecond, but there is a recognition that there are still things that need to be done,” said Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
Murray and Burr in the spring requested ideas about how to strengthen federal preparedness and response systems, improve and secure the supply chain for medical supplies, develop medical countermeasures, and address health disparities. Burr has consistently expressed a desire to reform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Murray has called for boosting long-term funding for public health departments.
Some short-term funding for state and local health departments may make its way into annual spending bills. Senate Democrats last week proposed adding $600 million for public health infrastructure at the CDC and for state and local governments — a $200 million increase from what President Biden had asked for, but $400 billion below what House Democrats proposed.
However, Democrats need Republican support to pass spending bills. Funding levels still could change, or Congress could choose to extend funding at current levels instead.
Dara Lieberman, the director of government relations for the public health policy group Trust for America’s Health, reiterated the importance of long-term public health funding, like was included in an earlier bill from Murray that set aside $750 million for public health infrastructure next year, and would eventually phase up to annual funding of $4.5 billion.
“Let’s say appropriators provide $600 million this year. It’s still not an assurance of next year or the next year,” Lieberman said. “Public health departments can’t hire if they don’t know funding will be there next year, or won’t be extended.”
Despite some bipartisan calls for action to review the federal government’s response to Covid-19 with a 9/11-style independent commission, bills to create such panels haven’t gotten traction. Murray has continued to have conversations about the importance of an independent assessment of the Covid-19 response, a committee aide said.
Beyond demonstrating the importance of preparing for another catastrophic pandemic, Covid-19 illustrated how fragile U.S. surveillance systems are to respond to other man-made or natural disasters, said Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and former Covid-19 adviser to Biden.
Soumi Saha, vice president of advocacy at Premier Inc., which buys supplies on behalf of health care providers, said her biggest fear is that preparedness efforts will lose momentum.
“It’s not just about the next pandemic, it’s about disasters like the winter storm in Texas. There are things that we need to do,” Saha said.