Congressional Action on Zika: Too Little, Too Late?

On September 28, Congress approved a stop-gap measure to fund the government until December 9 and to finally provide badly-needed funding to halt the spread of the Zika virus and provide health care for women and families affected by the disease. After months of stalemate, and with the threat of a government shutdown looming, Congressional leaders reached agreement on Zika as well as several other contentious issues.

The short-term Continuing Resolution, which was approved by large, bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, includes $1.1 billion in Zika funding and was signed by President Obama. Funding to fight the disease had been pending since February, when President Obama asked Congress to provide $1.9 billion in emergency appropriations. When Congress failed to act, the Obama Administration instead shifted money—to the tune of $589 million—from other accounts, including money allocated to fight the Ebola virus and funds set aside to help state and local governments prepare for public health emergencies.

With Zika continuing to spread, however, urgency was building. In recent weeks both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services stated that they were out of funds. According to the latest CDC estimates, over 23,000 people in mainland United States and Puerto Rico—including over 2,000 pregnant women—have contracted the virus. The CDC also reports that some 20 babies in mainland United States and one in Puerto Rico have been born with Zika-related birth defects.

Yet funding has been slow to materialize. Congress has been reluctant to provide emergency funds, and some members sought to block Planned Parenthood—a major provider of reproductive health care in the United States and Puerto Rico—from receiving Zika-related funding. The Planned Parenthood restrictions would have seriously impaired efforts to not only help women in Zika-affected areas control their reproduction and avoid pregnancy, but also to provide health services and counseling to pregnant women already affected by the virus. Thankfully, the Planned Parenthood bans were removed in the final version of the bill.

The funding bill contains $394 million for CDC’s mosquito control efforts, $397 million to fund the development of a Zika vaccine, as well as related research on diagnostic tests for the virus, and $141 million to prevent the spread of Zika in mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico. This domestic funding accounts for the bulk of the Zika response and is subject to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger. The bill also contains about $175 million under the State and Foreign Operations heading.

Despite the funding included in the bill, the U.S. response to the Zika crisis remains woefully restricted and inadequate. The United States failed to act until Zika reached its shores and is trying to catch up. But, as approved by Congress, the new Zika funding package falls far short of the President’s request, especially for international efforts to control Zika. What’s more, restrictions on U.S. funding, including the Helms and Hyde amendments, create additional barriers between women and reproductive health care.

With the passage of this short-term bill, Congress ensured that the government would continue to function through the November election. After Americans go to the polls, leaders from both houses will reconvene to try to pass legislation to fund the government through the remainder of this fiscal year. At that time, they will have to consider women’s health issues that keep coming up for debate, including: funding for the United Nations Population Fund, additional restrictions on funding for Planned Parenthood, and policy riders limiting women’s access to reproductive health care. Let’s hope women’s health and lives—both in the United States and globally—will stop being subjected to the whims of our leaders and representatives.

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