Sen. Collins Defends Role in Axing Pandemic Flu Funds

Posted April 27, 2009 at 1:34pm

The swine flu outbreak has Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) defending her role in striking $870 million in pandemic flu funding from the economic stimulus package.

Collins put out a statement Monday saying that she supports increasing funding for pandemic flus even though she helped nix it from the February stimulus measure.

And given the outbreak, she is now calling on the Senate to promptly confirm the nomination of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) as Health and Human Services secretary.

Collins wielded enormous influence as one of just three Republicans to back the $787 billion stimulus package, and the trio demanded substantial cuts from bills that passed the House and Senate as the price of their support. The flu funding, originally sought by House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), was a high-profile casualty, one that Collins herself cited on the Senate floor.

“It is the regular appropriations process that is the appropriate vehicle for considering funding for many of these programs that, while worthwhile, do not boost our economy,— she said on Feb. 9. “It does not make sense to include $870 million for pandemic flu preparedness, again an issue that I care deeply about because of my role on the Homeland Security Committee.—

Collins’ role in striking the flu funding has come under fire from left-leaning publications like The Nation and left-wing bloggers like the Daily Kos.

And a senior Democratic aide cited Collins’ opposition.

“The fact is we had $870 million in the stimulus conference report for things like antiviral drugs, but it was dropped at the behest of people like Sen. Collins who said it was not stimulus,— said a senior Democratic aide. “HHS does appear to be well-supplied, but the fact is this was a missed opportunity to be prepared for a crisis like this.—

Collins’ spokesman Kevin Kelley took aim at her critics. “Claims that she is opposed to increased funding for pandemic flu research are blatantly false and politically motivated,— he said.

Kelley noted that Collins sought a $905 million increase for the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund in a December 2008 letter to Senate leaders.

He also said that the omnibus spending bill signed into law in March contained $156 million for pandemic flu research — albeit well below the amount that Democrats had sought to include in the stimulus.

Collins’ office also noted that Congress had previously appropriated $6.1 billion for pandemic preparedness, including stockpiling antiviral drugs for more than 50 million Americans.

“There is no evidence that federal efforts to address the swine flu outbreak have been hampered by a lack of funds,— said Kelley. “Sen. Collins does, however, believe that it is a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services still do not have top positions filled. She hopes the Senate will move promptly to confirm Gov. Sebelius for HHS secretary.—

Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Department of Health and Human Services, announced Monday he would seek to add pandemic flu funding to the war supplemental already making its way through Congress.