Brent Ewing, MHS
Director, Public Policy & Government Affairs, AMCHP
I feel lucky that I have always been blessed with a generally positive outlook and optimistic demeanor. I agree with Eleanor Roosevelt's maxim, "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness," and I have tried to use that to guide my work. It has helped me not only survive, but thrive over nearly two decades working in Washington, D.C. However, the failure of Congress to act in any meaningful way to address the Zika virus emergency declared last February is one of the most discouraging and disappointing episodes I have seen in any of my years of public health advocacy.
If you've been following AMCHP's Legislative Alerts, you know that President Obama requested $1.9 billion in emergency supplemental funding back in February. After some initial signs of bi-partisan cooperation on a package providing $1.1 billion, efforts in mid-summer broke down over the inclusion of family planning restrictions and environmental regulatory changes included in a bill that passed the House largely on a party-line vote. The Senate has since failed twice to muster the 60 votes needed to move forward.
Congress is now on recess until early September – meaning that even if members are able to find common ground, any additional funds appropriated this year would likely not reach the front lines of Zika until autumn. In many ways, Congress's inaction has guaranteed that states and localities are on their own and that the window for robust primary prevention this summer is nearly slammed shut. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitoring over 800 pregnant women with Zika virus infection in the United States and territories, it is likely just a matter of time that the focus will necessarily shift from education and prevention to intensive care coordination.
So where do we go from here? AMCHP continues to work with a broad coalition of leading MCH groups to urge Congress to be ready to pass a robust package as soon as it returns in September. Unfortunately, the staff we are meeting with on Capitol Hill report that no negotiations are underway, as both sides seem deeply entrenched in their positions. Our hope is that the confirmed local transmission of the virus reported last week in Florida will create a new urgency to act and will bring all parties to the table to find a path forward.
Zika virus is testing our public health systems in new ways, partly because new information about the virus is discovered on a weekly basis. But whether we are talking about hurricanes, floods, influenza, MERS, SARS or Ebola, we have learned to expect the unexpected. The need for a strong yet flexible public health system could not be clearer, and yet in this summer of discontent Congress is failing to provide even a modicum of support. We will continue to work to change that and keep our candles lit.