Senate tackles Ebola response on its first day back

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, right, accompanied by Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 12, 2014, before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the government’s Ebola response.
Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, right, accompanied by Homeland Security Jeh Johnson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 12, 2014, before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the government’s Ebola response. AP

The U.S. might be Ebola-free – at least for now – but the deadly virus was at the top of the agenda Wednesday for the lame-duck Congress.

In a hearing before a Senate panel responsible for doling out federal funds, lawmakers quizzed senior administration officials about how they planned to use more than $6 billion in emergency funding requested by President Barack Obama to contain Ebola at home and abroad.

Wednesday’s session was noticeably less confrontational than past hearings that examined the government’s response to Ebola. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle seemed open to reaching rare accord on the need for the money, even if they quibbled over the details about how exactly it should be spent.

Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said emergency Ebola funding should not be a partisan issue.

“Ebola, in my mind, meets the criteria for emergency spending: It is sudden, urgent, unforeseen and temporary,” Mikulski said.

She noted that Congress in the past provided $6.4 billion in emergency funds to fight the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009 and $6.1 billion in response to the Avian Flu outbreak in 2005, under President George W. Bush.

“We worked on a bipartisan basis to do this,” she said. “I would hope that we would follow the models that worked in the past.”

Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican who serves as vice chairman of the committee, said the large size of the funding request deserves careful scrutiny from Congress. He said it wasn’t clear the president had a feasible plan for how to use the money effectively.

“From the beginning of this outbreak, the administration has appeared to be preparing for only the best-case scenario,” Shelby said. “Competent crisis planning, however, must include contingencies for the worst-case scenario as well.”

That’s why travel and visa restrictions shouldn’t be ruled out, he said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell and other administration officials who testified were eager to prove they had learned from initial missteps in their response to the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S.

Of the nine Ebola patients treated so far in America, Duncan was the only one to die. Eight have recovered, including two nurses who became infected while treating Duncan.

“What we learned clearly is we need to adjust our response based on experience,” said Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The administration now believes it has the right strategy in place to contain the spread of Ebola, Burwell said: “We are confident we can limit the number of additional cases in the this country.”

She described a four-part strategy designed to strengthen preparedness in the U.S., to halt the epidemic at its epicenter in West Africa, to speed the development of drugs and vaccines, and to prevent future outbreaks.

The administration’s $6.2 billion request includes $2.9 billion for the Department of State and the Agency for International Development to help fight Ebola in West Africa; $112 million for the Department of Defense to accelerate the development of Ebola vaccines and treatments; and $25 million for the Food and Drug Administration to fund the development of new drugs.

More than $2 billion would go to HHS to boost the capacity of hospitals to treat patients with the virus by providing training and personal protective equipment. About $1.5 billion would be earmarked for a contingency fund that would address any unforeseen needs in the future.

The Pentagon’s portion of the emergency funds also would pay for airlifts of crucial medical supplies, the construction of hospitals and the training of local residents to become first responders and health care support personnel, testified Michael Lumpkin, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.

Lumpkin explained that the funds are needed because inadequate infrastructure and poor roads in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone hinder efforts to move essential supplies, equipment and personnel to fight Ebola.

Ebola is a national security issue that calls for coordinated efforts in the U.S. and overseas, he said.

“I traveled to (West Africa) thinking we faced a health care crisis with a logistics challenge,” Lumpkin told lawmakers. “In reality we face a logistics crisis focused on a health care crisis.”

Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska asked administration officials why the emergency request didn’t include reimbursement for local hospitals that have treated Ebola patients, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

“I think you need a more regional concept than what is called for by this legislation,” he said. “With the small amount of money that’s going to go into each state, what you’re going to end up with is double-wide units. That’s not going to be adequate. I just think that that money’s going to go out there and it’s not going to be enough.”

Mikulski assured Johanns that she was open to negotiation. “Let’s talk about this,” she said.

Other Republican senators questioned why Ron Klain, the so-called Ebola czar appointed by Obama, was not present at the hearing.

Mikulski said the White House had declined Klain’s participation, telling her that he had no operational role and that he was only a coordinator.