As the US health care system watches the ongoing coronavirus epidemic in China and braces for a potential local outbreak, President Trump is looking to cut funding for public health preparedness programs.
The administration’s proposed 2021 budget for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) cuts $25 million from the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response and $18 million from the Hospital Preparedness Program. The administration also asked for over $85 million in cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program.
“To be clear, these programs are already underfunded,” tweeted Nicolette Louissaint, executive director of Healthcare Ready, a nonprofit that works to make health care supply chains more resilient.
Housed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response is charged with responding to public health emergencies. It also coordinates public health responses with local and international partners and manages the Strategic National Stockpile, which squirrels away critical medical supplies for use in emergencies.
The Hospital Preparedness Program aims to ready hospitals for emergency surges of patients, and it’s already under-equipped to handle situations like the ones currently seen in China. Right now in the US, hospitals are already swamped by the flu and are counting their supplies of protective equipment. Cuts to the Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases program would further hamstring the CDCs ability to do research on diseases like coronavirus and to gather the scientific information that lets it prepare for outbreaks like this one.
The 2021 budget request did ask for an additional $50 million for the CDC’s Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund. That fund, which was established in fiscal year 2019, is currently being used in the ongoing coronavirus response. That money, though, is activated only after a public health threat appears.
Preparedness programs are inherently forward-looking, and funding them often doesn’t generate obvious, immediate results or returns. But ensuring that they’re well-supported means that public health agencies are ready for emergency situations. It’s never going to be a good idea to limit their work. The ongoing coronavirus epidemic already illustrates their importance, and they’ll be even more critical if the virus starts spreading more extensively in the US.