U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on Tuesday questioned U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar on the administration’s novel coronavirus response during a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on the administration’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 budget request for the Department of Health and Human Services. The President’s FY 2021 proposes to cut the HHS budget by 10 percent, including a 16 percent cut to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a seven percent cut to the National Institutes of Health. This hearing comes the day after the Trump administration requested a non-specific emergency supplemental funding request to combat the coronavirus epidemic that by all accounts is a fraction of what the U.S. will need to appropriately respond to this crisis.
Calling the supplemental emergency funding request last night “too little, too late,” Murphy said: “You presented a briefing to members of the Senate three weeks ago in which many of us expressed alarm that the administration had not sent a supplemental request to Congress at the outset of this epidemic. We were told in that briefing that the administration believed that it had ample existing resources to handle this epidemic—that didn’t make sense to many of us who saw what was coming. Last night, you sent word that you are now requesting that supplemental funding, and we are hopeful to get some meat put on the bones so that we can get to work very quickly. That was a mistake, now, in retrospect to not request that funding weeks ago at the beginning of this pandemic, correct?”
“We cannot continue to close our eyes to these developing pandemics. We are going to have to be partnering with many other countries. And under this administration, unfortunately, we’re going the wrong way. We are operating in less countries abroad, not more countries, but I will appreciate hearing the more detailed information from you in the coming days,” Murphy continued.
Murphy slammed the Trump administration’s recent emergency funding request to protect from the coronavirus epidemic that was sent to Congress last night. Earlier this month, Murphy blasted the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. Murphy also signed onto a letter with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) urging the FDA to ensure the safety and supply of pharmaceuticals, food and medical supplies amid the growing epidemic. Murphy also joined other senators in pressing the Trump administration to request emergency funding for coronavirus response.
A complete transcript of Murphy’s exchange with Secretary Azar can be found below:
SENATOR MURPHY: “Thank you very much. Good morning, Mr. Secretary. We can agree that when you’re dealing with a response to a pandemic, days and weeks matter, correct?”
HHS SECRETARY ALEX AZAR: “We try to take advantage of every day we’ve been able to buy through our aggressive containment efforts and our public health response. Absolutely.”
MURPHY: “You presented a briefing to members of the Senate three weeks ago in which many of us expressed alarm that the administration had not sent a supplemental request to Congress at the outset of this epidemic. We were told in that briefing that the administration believed that it had ample existing resources to handle this epidemic—that didn’t make sense to many of us who saw what was coming. Last night, you sent word that you are now requesting that supplemental funding, and we are hopeful to get some meat put on the bones so that we can get to work very quickly. That was a mistake, now, in retrospect to not request that funding weeks ago at the beginning of this pandemic, correct?”
AZAR: “No, not at all. We had $105 million that we are spending from the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Fund. We haven’t even started on the $136 million from the transfer authority that I’ve sent over. I think last night we sent notice of the reprogramming and transfer plans that we have for that one. Three weeks ago was just two weeks into even knowing about this virus, which we’ve been very transparent briefing and working with you on. One can’t know the contours or nature of the disease or the progression to even know what to request at that point and what that would involve. And, indeed, today we’ve seen one of one of your colleagues was questioning if we even know enough to make a request at this point. And so we’re making the request – we believe we know enough to do that now.”
MURPHY: “Well, I think his point was in response to your statement regarding your inability to create a market until you have the funding, which speaks to the long process from the request of funding to Congress to the creation of a market that would answer some of the concerns that Senator Rubio has. And so, what was knowable three weeks ago is that when you make a request of Congress, the money doesn’t occur and be created overnight. It’s a process to come up with that legislation. And then you acknowledge yourself that even once you get that funding, you then need to go out and create markets for some of the products that have shortages. And so, many of us did see the need early on because we knew that it would take a long time in order to get this funding through the process. And I think we’ve lost critical days and weeks, and there were many people in that briefing who were asking you to present this earlier.
“Can I ask you about a program that the CDC was running—I think largely with previous supplemental dollars? I’ve heard it referred to as an epidemic prevention account, Global Health Security Initiative, operating in about 50 countries. Reports from about a year and a half ago suggest that as that money ran out, and the CDC didn’t replace it with other funds, the number of countries in which we were forward deployed trying to train local public health staffs to identify pandemics and respond to them were reduced from 49 countries to 10 countries. At the time, you received a letter from about 200 different public health organizations asking you to backfill and request new resources to make sure that those programs remained open. You may not have an answer today, but can you confirm that that program is only running today in 10 countries compared to the 49 that it was running in when that supplemental funding was still available?”
AZAR: “So what’s happened is as the Ebola supplemental money was going down, we were increasing the Global Health Security Agenda funding through CDC. So for instance, for 2021 appropriation, we’ve requested $175 million, which is a $50 million increase there as we slope that up. In terms of the countries, we are very committed to Global Health Security Agenda, as are you. The number of countries – our focus has moved to try to have a regional footprint and also to, as we’ve built labs and build capacities in countries, they stand on their own and we move to other countries or moved to a regional approach. We can get you the precise countries where we’re operating in now, but that’s been the philosophy. It’s not been a retrenchment, it’s though been to have a regional deployable force instead of permanent infrastructure in every single country.”
MURPHY: “The Chairman isn’t here, but I think the answer is that we are operating today in perhaps one fifth the number of countries that we were several years ago. And we were operating in 50 countries because we recognize we had a lot of work to do to train up staffs, especially in developing countries, to identify these outbreaks and treat them at the outset so they didn’t ultimately reach our shores. And many of us have been, I think, sounding this alarm for years that budget cut after budget cut, proposed budget cut after proposed budget cut, to the CDC was going to have an effect. And I don’t think today we can draw a straight line between the number of countries that have been cleaved off of this global pandemic prevention program and the outbreak that we’re dealing with today, but it is another alarm bell for us. We cannot continue to close our eyes to these developing pandemics. We are going to have to be partnering with many other countries. And under this administration, unfortunately, we’re going the wrong way. We are operating in less countries abroad, not more countries, but I will appreciate hearing the more detailed information from you in the coming days.”