As mosquitoes seem to be spreading Zika inside the United States, the Obama administration has been sitting on some of the resources intended to fight the virus.
The administration has spent or obligated less than half of the $589 million that it has available, Congressional Quarterly reported, citing numbers from the Office of Management and Budget. In April, the administration reallocated money originally designated to fight Ebola.
Despite its failure to spend the money it has available, the White House continues to demand Congress approve $1.9 billion to fight Zika. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are filibustering a bill that would provide $1.1 billion in funding.
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Some Republicans in Congress have already questioned the need for additional Zika money.
“Congress must offset funds used to combat Zika,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, in a statement to The Daily Signal. “We also have time, clearly, since the Obama administration has failed to actually spend most of the funds that were allocated to fight the virus.”
The Department of Health and Human Services insists all or most of the money will be obligated in August. However, Congressional Quarterly reported that “just because money has been ‘obligated’ doesn’t mean it has actually been spent yet.”
Zika is spread by mosquitoes, but it can also be sexually transmitted and passed from pregnant mother to child. The virus is particularly dangerous for pregnant women because it can trigger microcephaly, which is a birth defect that causes a baby’s head to be smaller than expected and its brain to be underdeveloped.
Some people who have the virus are not always aware because the symptoms are typical to a cold. More than 1,300 travel-related cases have been reported nationally.
The Obama administration has already obligated government funds for mosquito control, shipping thousands of Zika prevention kits to Puerto Rico. It’s also conducting research into a Zika vaccine, said Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Hall.
“In the absence of any congressional funding, HHS has shifted $374 million from other activities to respond to Zika in the United States and Puerto Rico,” Hall told The Daily Signal in an email. “Of this amount, HHS has obligated more than $180 million to date.”
HHS has the bulk of the Ebola money reallocated for Zika—$452 million. Out of that, $374 million was set aside for domestic spending and $78 million for assisting South and Central American countries. So about half of the domestic amount—$180 million—has been obligated. That doesn’t mean spent, but a commitment to spend.
“The other half is expected to be completely obligated by August,” Hall added. “We are bound by federal procurement regulations and are obliged to follow the standard process for awarding that money, and much of it will move in July and August for remaining contract awards. HHS made its emergency supplemental budget request of Congress back in February precisely because the process of spending money within federal rules—rules designed to encourage the most efficient and appropriate use of taxpayers’ dollars—takes time.”
The remaining $137 million in Zika funds was provided to the United States Agency for International Development, which is entirely for assisting other countries. A USAID spokesman did not respond to phone and email inquiries from The Daily Signal.
In its response to The Daily Signal, the HHS spokesman did not answer the question of why so much of the money taken from the Ebola funds was unspent.
The Obama administration has also provided $88 million to states, cities, and territories for mosquito control, Zika testing, and tracking mothers and babies affected by Zika. The administration also added 120 staff to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in offices in Georgia, Colorado, and Puerto Rico, Hall said.
During a committee markup in July, House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said, “They’ve spent $90 million. They’ve got $500 million lying there of that money. I don’t know what’s going on down there. They’ve got the money and they won’t spend it. My question is why.”
Betsy McCaughey, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, thinks she knows why.
“The money moved from Ebola funding is money the administration is very reluctant to spend because it was going to be used for monuments to Obama in Africa with health infrastructure to be built there,” McCaughey, a former New York lieutenant governor, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. “He seems to be holding this money hostage until he gets that unreasonable $1.9 billion to build monuments to himself in South America and Central America with health infrastructure there. What we really need to prioritize is combating mosquitoes here in the United States.”
On Wednesday, Obama got an update from Amy Pope, his deputy homeland security adviser, on cases of nontravel-related Zika cases in Florida. Last week, Obama spoke to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, about the spread of the virus in his state.
Scott announced Monday that the Florida Department of Health concluded that 14 nontravel-related cases of Zika in the state were spread by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes carrying Zika are primarily in the Miami-Dade County area, he said.
“All four of these people live in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties and the Florida Department of Health believes that active transmissions of this virus could be occurring in one small area in Miami,” Scott said. “While no mosquitoes have tested positive for the Zika virus, DOH is aggressively testing people in this area to ensure there are no other cases. If you live in this area and want to be tested, I urge you to contact the county health department which stands ready to assist you.”
More than 300 people in Florida were diagnosed with the mosquito-borne illness. Just four were nontravel-related. The state with the most overall diagnosed cases is New York, with nearly 500, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The virus is most widespread in South and Central American countries, and it initially seemed American cases were entirely travel-related.
“Following today’s news, I directed the Department of Health to immediately begin contracting with commercial pest control companies to increase spraying and mosquito abatement efforts in the impacted area,” Scott continued. “We know from our experience with successfully dealing with other mosquito-borne viruses in our state that through constant surveillance and immediate action that we will protect our families and visitors.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued travel notices for Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. In February, the World Health Organization declared that Zika was a public health emergency of international concern.
White House spokesman Eric Schultz gave credit to Scott for addressing Florida’s problems, but blamed Congress for not allocating the $1.9 billion.
“Governor Scott has been preparing for this circumstance for quite some time,” Schultz said Friday. He added, “They do this with the support of the administration. I think the numbers the CDC have put out is—the CDC has given out $2 million to Florida in Zika-specific response. The CDC has also given out $27 million in emergency preparedness, much of which can be used for Zika response.”
“We believe that’s insufficient; that Congress has been sitting on a $1.9 billion that would more fully fund the federal response to this public health emergency,” Schultz continued. “Unfortunately, they left town for seven weeks without doing anything on this. We find that regrettable. We often get asked what is not being done because Congress hasn’t approved those funds. That includes everything from hiring more inspectors on the ground. This is something that local governments in Florida have asked for, yet because Congress won’t act, we’re not able to supply enough funding for that.”
Not all of the unused Ebola money was redirected to fight Zika. Heritage Foundation budget expert Paul Winfree said there is significantly more money available to tap from unused Ebola funds.
“The president’s request for Zika could be paid for with Ebola funds,” Winfree said in a statement. “In total, there are about $2.77 billion in unobligated balances from the 2015 fiscal year Ebola emergency supplemental appropriation that could be used towards a Zika response. However, by using the Zika emergency supplemental to move the proposal forward, the president seems to be trying to capitalize on the recent disease outbreak in order to get his proposed policy through while avoiding having to pay for the policy change.”