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Spending Standoff Keeps NIH Chimps in Lockdown

Courtesy Chimp Haven
The NIH wants to move retired lab chimpanzees to a sanctuary. The proposal has gained praise and will save money, but is stalled because of the dysfunctional appropriations process.

“Moving these chimps to the sanctuary makes scientific, ethical and economic sense,” said Kathy Hudson, deputy director for science, outreach, and policy at the NIH.

Without the needed legislative fix, the NIH now is rapidly approaching a $30 million cap set in a 2000 law (PL 106-551) on cumulative costs to support its retired chimps in the federal sanctuary system, with much of the funding already spent on startup costs for the program. This means the NIH chimpanzees now housed at the working research sites in Texas and Louisiana remain there, while there’s an increasingly urgent question of how to keep paying for the care of about 159 NIH chimpanzees already at their retirement site, on the outskirts of Shreveport, La.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is pushing in two ways to get the 2000 relocation law revised.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Harkin is in charge of the panel that writes new regulations and authorizes policy for the NIH. He has forwarded to this panel a bill (S 1561) that would let the NIH exceed the $30 million cap on chimpanzee sanctuary costs if doing so would decrease the total cost of supporting these animals through fiscal 2023. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the panel’s ranking Republican, co-sponsored the measure.

As chairman of the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Harkin is also in charge of the NIH budget. He wrote into his fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill (S 1284) a provision that would effectively put on hold the $30 million cap and let the NIH begin moving more chimps to the Louisiana sanctuary.

The big hurdle, however, is that the Labor-HHS-Education bill that would provide the most direct path for changing the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance and Protection Act cap is perhaps the most controversial of the 12 appropriations bills and has come nowhere near the floor in recent years.

In March, Democratic and Republican leaders opted to dodge some divisive questions about the implementation of the 2010 health law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) by leaving the fiscal 2013 Labor-HHS-Education bill unfinished. It was one of seven appropriations bills covered by a long-term CR in the fiscal 2013 wrap-up package (PL 113-6) enacted in March.

That also put on hold almost all of the changes, many of which had bipartisan support, that have been included in the bill.

The odds are high that the fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education bill may also end up in a kind of legislative holding pattern in this stalemate.

Appropriators likely will have only a few weeks to wrap up a fiscal 2014 package, with the final spending cap for the budget year expected to be resolved in December by the budget conference committee. The time constraints and lingering feud over the health law may then severely limit how many policy changes Harkin can make through fiscal 2014 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations, which may again be covered by a CR.

That means programs funded by this bill will miss out on some chances to improve efficiency through tweaks that would have been made fairly easily in a new appropriations law, aides say. There’s great skepticism of anomalies added to CRs, and the bar for getting them into these measures remains high.

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