Congress tackled two health crises but it didn’t have to be this hard
It only took seven months but Republicans in Congress finally fulfilled President Barack Obama’s request for emergency funding to fight the Zika virus. The president asked Congress for $1.8 billion back in February.
On Sept. 28, Congress sent the president a spending bill, which included $1.1 billion for Zika.
Why did it take so long? Because of the same political game playing that we’ve seen in past attempts to fund the government.
In May, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill on an overwhelming vote of 89 to 8. Then the House majority got a hold of it.
They simply could have brought it before the House for a vote. It probably would have received bipartisan support similar to the Senate. The president would have put his signature on it and that funding would have been on its way to finding a cure and vaccine.
But not in today’s Congress. The House majority, under pressure from the fringe elements of the Republican party, added two provisions to the bill they knew full well Democrats would never support.
The first weakened the Clean Water Act to allow for unrestricted use of pesticides on or near waterways. There is no question that mosquito eradication will be part of any effort to curtail the spread of the Zika virus. However, we need to be sure it is done in ways that don’t hurt the environment or threaten public health.
The second provision added to the bill takes absurdity to new levels. This provision would have prohibited Profamilias — Puerto Rico’s Planned Parenthood affiliate — from receiving federal funding to provide health services related to the Zika virus, including preventive services like contraception.
Of the more than 16,000 cases of Zika in the United States and its territories, over 15,000 are in Puerto Rico. One of the ways the Zika virus is spread is through sexual transmission.
Contraception is a simple and inexpensive way people can protect themselves from being infected. It defies all logic why anyone would want to take that away from people.
When this version came before the House, I voted against it, as did almost all House Democrats. Unfortunately, the bill passed.
Since the House had altered the legislation it needed to go back to the Senate. It was not surprising that Senate Democrats rejected it.
That was months ago. In that time, the existing funding used on research to find a cure and vaccine continued to dwindle down.
Over those months, House Democrats made numerous attempts to get the emergency funding into the hands of researchers. There were nine votes in the House. All of them failed along party lines.
San Diego has not been immune to the Zika crisis. We have been lucky that to date none of the over 20 cases here have been mosquito-borne in our region, unlike in Florida and Puerto Rico. Of the 22 San Diego cases, 21 people contracted Zika in other countries and one was sexually transmitted.
However, the over 16,000 cases in the U.S. show this crisis is real and needs immediate attention.
At the end of the day, the provisions the House majority had insisted upon were quietly removed. The funding that passed in September was the clean version of the bill Democrats wanted.
On another note but still health-related, Congress finally provided relief to Flint, Michigan. This was another crisis where many people were urging action. I traveled to Flint in March to meet with its residents and hear firsthand about their experiences during this manmade disaster where 9,000 children were exposed to lead.
The assistance Congress approved will allow for the replacement of pipes and other water infrastructure improvements in Flint.
Both the action on Zika and Flint are long overdue but certainly welcome developments. However, did it really need to take months for it to get done?
Going forward, I hope that we can get past partisan politics with future crises. We should not be playing games when it comes to the health and safety of the American people.