Public Health Needs Public Support | Commentary

Posted July 8, 2015 at 11:16am

Among the most basic responsibilities of the federal government is safeguarding public health. When it comes to preventing an epidemic or infectious disease outbreak, promoting healthy lifestyles, researching disease and injury prevention, and much more, our efforts are more effective when they are collective, rely on proven science and benefit from robust investments.

That is one big reason the Republican majority’s 2016 appropriations bills are simply inadequate. They walk back long-standing federal commitments to public health from prevention and treatment of lead poisoning to tobacco prevention and smoking cessation, and women’s access to basic health services.

Just a few months ago, the tragic death of Freddie Gray shined a light on the long-term effects of exposure to lead on cognitive functioning, behavior and physical health. Three 2016 appropriations bills carry damaging provisions that could perpetuate the problem by slashing 32 percent of funding that helps state and local governments mitigate lead poisoning and conduct public outreach; prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing its rule on safe removal and renovation of lead paint; and cutting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention program to $15 million, less than half of its fiscal 2010 high of $34.8 million.

The CDC confirms that cigarette smoking causes about 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States each year, and causes more than 480,000 deaths annually including those from secondhand smoke. Well-known consequences of tobacco use include stroke, cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and much more. Yet the 2016 health appropriations bill cuts smoking cessation and tobacco prevention funding by more than half, and the agriculture bill includes an outrageous exemption for e-cigarettes and thousands of other tobacco products from pre-market Food and Drug Administration review, undermining federal efforts to deter youth smoking.

Finally, the 2016 appropriations bills include funding cuts and ideological policy riders that would have devastating consequences on women’s access to high quality health care. The Labor-HHS-Education bill eliminates funding for Title X family planning activities, impeding women’s access to lifesaving cancer screenings, contraception and testing and treatments for sexually transmitted infections. It also cuts teen pregnancy prevention to just 20 percent of its fiscal 2015 funding level and restricts half of the few funds provided to ineffective abstinence-only programming. The Republican majority included policy riders allowing a woman’s employer to refuse health coverage for services — including contraception or fertility treatment — to which the employer objects, and allowing employers in the District of Columbia to terminate a woman’s employment based on her personal health decisions.

The Affordable Care Act ensures coverage of maternity care and preventive screenings, ends lifetime caps on coverage and prohibits insurance companies from discriminating based on their gender or pre-existing conditions. Yet, having failed to overturn the Affordable Care Act through the courts, the Republican majority included riders blocking funding to administer this law and operate marketplaces, and rescind investments in better care and reduced costs. The ongoing crusade to strip 19 million people of health insurance would have staggering costs in both dollars and wellness.

If enacted into law, each of these funding cuts or policy riders would have real consequences on hardworking Americans’ health and safety.

The Republican budget resolution forces this kind of irresponsible and unnecessary austerity when we should be investing in our nation, and the Republican majority’s decisions to include divisive policy riders do not inspire confidence about their desire to reach agreement on funding the government before the end of the fiscal year.

In order to avoid another government shutdown crisis this fall, Congress must drop ideological riders in appropriations bills and lift senseless and arbitrary budget caps, which do nothing to reduce the deficit and could hurt federal responsibilities Americans count on, such as public health initiatives.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., is the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee.