The Obama administration sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to pass emergency funding to fight the Zika virus just weeks after the president threatened to veto a $1.1 billion Zika spending measure passed by the House of Representatives.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell sent a letter to the House and Senate appropriations committees stating that the department runs the risk of exhausting $374 million in funds allocated to the fight against the mosquito-borne virus, which is linked to pregnancy complications and severe birth defects.
"I want to urge you to work with your leadership to develop a bipartisan bill that will allow us to mount the full and timely response to the Zika virus that the American people deserve," the letter says. "The Department is committed to using scarce federal dollars aggressively and prudently, especially in light of Congress’s inaction."
The House of Representatives passed a bill in June to appropriate $1.1 billion in emergency funding to fight the disease and develop a vaccine. The bill included more than $700 million in budget offsets by cutting back funding for Obamacare in U.S. territories and shifting unused funds from previous health emergencies.
The bill also included a version of the Hyde Amendment, which prevents taxpayer dollars from being used to pay for abortion. President Obama threatened to veto the bill if it passed the Senate and Senate Democrats blocked the bill. The Democratic Party advocated eliminating the Hyde Amendment in its 2016 platform, which would permit taxpayer-funded abortion.
Rep. Phil Roe (R., Tenn.), an OB-GYN and head of the Republican Doctors Caucus, said Democrats are playing politics with Zika funding.
"I know how harmful this virus can be to pregnant women and their unborn children, so it’s critical that we act to properly prepare for and treat this disease," Roe said in an email. "As Zika continues to spread, it's time for Senate Democrats to stop playing politics and allow an up-or-down vote on our compromise bill to address this serious issue."
Two agencies leading the fight against Zika, the National Institutes of Health and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, run the risk of exhausting more than $130 million in emergency funding "by the end of the month," according to the letter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received more than $220 million to combat the virus. Those funds could be exhausted by October.
Burwell said the administration stands by its request for $1.9 billion.
"The Administration's request for $1.9 billion in emergency supplemental funding … is the most effective way to enhance our ongoing efforts to respond to this challenge," the letter says.
More than 6,000 people have been infected by Zika in the United States, including 855 pregnant women, with most of the cases arising from travel to South American countries or sexual intercourse with an infected person.
Public health officials expressed alarm after infected mosquitos were found in a Miami neighborhood, leading to a shutdown in blood donations in the area as well as the spraying of aerial insecticides to eliminate mosquitos.