Today at an Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Murray grilled Secretary Azar on the Administration’s lack of novel coronavirus preparedness and their “very small, unspecified” supplemental funding request
Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Labor, Health, and Human Services (LHHS) Appropriations Subcommittee, pushed Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to answer questions about the Trump Administration’s response to novel coronavirus. Senator Murray pressed Secretary Azar on the White House’s request for supplemental emergency funding, which Senator Murray stated at the hearing was inadequate and vague. Senator Murray expressed concern for the “very small, unspecified supplemental, and the lack of preparedness” by the Administration as the virus threatens to become pandemic.
Following the exchange, Senator Murray stated, “It’s troubling that the Administration didn’t use the month of planning time it had to follow the recommendations of its own experts to better prepare for a pandemic. It’s just one more example of the Administration disregarding scientific evidence and public health experts.”
“While I’m glad the Administration has finally submitted a request for emergency supplemental funding—as I’ve urged them to do—this request is totally inadequate to address the needs we are hearing from our federal state, and local health experts working to combat this crisis,” Senator Murray stated after the hearing. “Public health experts have made clear this isn’t likely to end any time soon, so it’s critical we plan appropriately and that the Administration provide the necessary resources to manage this over the long term. When it comes to staying ahead of this disease and keeping families safe, we simply can’t afford to plan our response to this crisis on the cheap.”
In her opening remarks, Senator Murray also criticized the Trump Administration’s budget proposals that would undermine progress on key health care challenges and go back on President Trump’s past promises—including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid. Senator Murray made clear the budget also represents a backwards step in efforts to address substance use, HIV, suicide, maternal mortality, and more. She questioned Secretary Azar sharply regarding the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) treatment of unaccompanied minors in its care following alarming reports ORR had shared children’s confidential therapy notes with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Text of the full exchange is available below:
Sen. Murray: Thank you Mr. Chairman. At the administration’s briefing this morning on the coronavirus, we were told by the experts, NIH, CDC, that there is a very strong chance of an extremely serious outbreak of the coronavirus here in the United States. So I want to talk about the preparations of this administration and what you’ve been doing. You’ve had a month now to prepare for this increasing likelihood and I want to ask you: is our country ready?
Sec. Azar: So our country is preparing every day, and the effective, aggressive contaminant measures that we’ve taken at our borders as well as working with our public health department—
Sen. Murray: I mean, I meant—
Sec. Azar: –Have bought us time to continue preparedness. One is always advancing preparedness, everyday one advances those activities…
Sen. Murray: I only have a few minutes, let me be really clear because you sent over a supplemental that wasn’t clear to me at all. You just mentioned a number of things from tracing, from state and local governments needing their health cares and hospitals ready for this. You talked about protective masks, you talked about surveillance system. I didn’t see anything in that request that specifically says how much each of those is going to cost, and we know, we’ve seen this outbreak in China now, we know it is going to other countries. It quickly overwhelms a health care system that puts patients who don’t have the virus at risk, who suffer from other conditions. We know that medications become very difficult. Did you stockpile any of these critical supplies that we are told we need: masks, protective suits, ventilators, anything, is that stockpiled and ready?
Sec. Azar: So we do have in the strategic national stockpile ventilators, we have masks, we have—
Sen. Murray: Enough?
Sec. Azar: Well of course not, or we wouldn’t be asking for a supplemental to seek more money to procure more of that for this circumstance. This is a very, this is an unprecedented potential severe health challenge globally, and will require additional measures.
Sen. Murray: OK, well I didn’t see any numbers in your request.
Sec. Azar: Well, we’ll be briefing committee staff and members. This just came over last night, and we’ll be briefing you on those details and supporting you with technical assistance—
Sen. Murray: Well you just gave us a very long list of things that are needed, most of which we don’t have, which you can’t just buy tomorrow. And I am very concerned that this is not only inadequate in terms of numbers, but in terms of specifics of what we’re going to need, and we need to know that from your experts. You know health experts including your own tell us that this outbreak could be very long-lasting, and this is a very vague request for supplemental funding, and I just think it’s a band-aid and I want to know why—We’ve known this is coming, we’ve been watching in China, everybody’s been telling this. What are the long-term costs of a sustained response, do we know that, including the manufacture, and by the way of diagnostics, that we know we are not ready for right now?
Sec. Azar: Well we have the details, will be provided in the Committee and Committee staff and we want to work with you on this to ensure that it’s an effective supplemental that meets your needs. This funding request is for 2020 funding only at this point that would have a permission for carry over into 2021 spend, but then we would work with Congress, the appropriators, on adjusting any 2021 needs as we learn, we’re really learning day by day and week by week here what the contours of this disease, as well as the spread of this disease and its potential impact, and that will help inform those 2021 discussions that we would of course have with this committee going forward in the next couple of months.
Sen. Murray: Well I just have to say I’m very concerned about this administration’s attitude for this. If a pandemic is coming and we are disregarding scientific evidence and relying on Tweets and emergency supplemental without details and we’re not stockpiling those things right now that we know we might possibly need for this, or any future pandemic, I’m deeply concerned that we are way behind the eight ball on this.
Sec. Azar: Well we actually have been aggressively moving, it’s been a month and a half since this situation arose and we have enacted the most aggressive containment measures in the history of our country in terms of our borders. I’ve used the first federal quarantine authority in 50 years of a HHS Secretary, we’ve worked—
Sen. Murray: Can assure every single American today that if this pandemic hits our shores, that we have everything available, and we’ve stockpiled it, and we’re ready to go?
Sec. Azar: That’s precisely why we need to work with Congress for additional appropriations to enable procurement, but right now, and we’ve been very clear, Dr. Fauchi has told you just this morning, we don’t have a vaccine, one can’t have a vaccine—
Sen. Murray: No, I’m not asking about, I’m asking about diagnostics, and testing, which we don’t have enough currently.
Sec. Azar: Well, yes, we have a diagnostic. CDC invented a diagnostic in historic time, in one week of the sequence arriving.
Sen. Murray: But it is not available to the 137—
Sec. Azar: It is available now at CDC and then twelve sites have been able to validate it. We are working with, CDC and FDA are working together on a modified version of the test which would enable qualified control of the third reagent stage or elimination of that if possible to enable further spread of the diagnostic.
Sen. Murray: Mr. Secretary, I’m out of time, but I’m told the diagnostic doesn’t work.
Sec. Azar: That’s simply, flatly incorrect. The diagnostic works at CDC and at twelve sites it has been validated, at other sites we’re working to get them validated. This is a working diagnostic, in the areas of the 137 labs where it was sent, there was a problem with the third reagent stage of it that led to inconclusive results against control. We are assessing right now with the FDA whether that actual step is needed in the process. And we have 70 private diagnostic manufacturers who are working to bring forward diagnostics and we are working with those to [unintelligible] authorization.
Sen. Murray: We’re not there yet.
Sec. Azar: We are not, what, 50 days into it? This is historic. No administration, no CDC in American history has delivered like this.
Sen. Murray: I don’t question that at all. But I do question our ability, with a very small, unspecified supplemental, and the lack of preparedness that we have to be ready for this. Thank you Mr. Chairman.