Senate Unanimously Passes Bill To Enhance America’s Ability To Address Public Health Disasters

After Congress’ failure to reach a deal avoiding across-the-board discretionary spending cuts, the so-called “sequester” will go into effect on Friday, meaning that funding for early childhood education, safety net programs for low-income women and children, medical research, and disaster preparedness will be slashed considerably. But last night, the Senate took action to soften the blow when it comes to states’ and the federal government’s abilities to cope with unforeseen public health disasters and emergencies.

The Senate unanimously passed the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013 (PAHPRA) on Thursday. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the bill “strengthens our nation’s preparedness for and ability to respond to medical and public health emergencies, optimizes state and local all-hazards preparedness and response efforts and collaboration, enhances medical countermeasure activities, and reauthorizes key medical and public health programs, including the BioShield Special Reserve Fund,” according to a press release on Burr’s congressional webpage.

PAHPRA updates and increases funding for a wide range of programs meant to strengthen America’s preparedness for potential public health crises, including chemical and biological attacks, nuclear meltdowns, and natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy that place massive burdens on states’ and municipalities’ hospitals and emergency response systems. That’s welcome news considering that, even before the sequester went into effect, state budget cuts had left America woefully unprepared to deal with future public health emergencies. In fact, 35 states and the District of Columbia meet fewer than seven out of 10 key public health preparedness indicators.

Among the bill’s most important provisions are its programs to give states “the flexibility to request voluntary temporary reassignment of federally-funded state and local public health department personnel to immediately address a public health emergency.” Such flexibility would give localities some much-needed help in an era of increasingly frequent natural disasters and the rise of “superbugs” and vaccine-resistant bacteria.

Still, state and public health officials warn that governments’ tendencies to cut emergency-preparedness funding — including cuts in the sequester — are dangerous and short-sighted, as hospitals and emergency-response units have to focus their efforts on real-time crises rather than allocating precious resources to future disasters. Strengthening preparedness programs is also a smarter and more cost-effective way to approach public health emergencies than the current habit of hastily enacting relief funding bills after a crisis has already occurred — an approach that leaves emergency-responders at the mercy of a dysfunctional Congress that couldn’t even pass a Hurricane Sandy relief bill on its first try.