Congressional officials: key coronavirus funds dwindling

WASHINGTON — Nearly all of the money for a key federal program to boost coronavirus testing, therapies and vaccines appears to have been committed or already disbursed, raising the possibility that the Biden administration will have to ask Congress to approve additional help.

The decrease in funds reflects increased spending as the White House in recent months has worked aggressively to combat the rise of the omicron variant. As senior officials say they are confident in their ability to weather the latest surge, they have started to explore whether more money might be needed to protect the public against future variants.

“We will never let funding get in the way of our response to COVID and will stay in touch with Congress about the resources needed to ensure we stay ahead of the virus and move forward when covid does not disrupt our everyday life,” according to an official from the Office of Management and Budget.

The issue is captured in documents the Biden administration shared privately with congressional lawmakers, which The Washington Post obtained on Thursday. Two people familiar with the documents confirmed their details, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe them.

In total, the figures focus on around $350 billion earmarked specifically for the Department of Health and Human Services since the start of the pandemic in 2020. This includes funding under President Donald Trump and the more recent provision of $80 billion dollars as part of the $1.9 trillion. US bailout plan that President Biden signed into law last spring.

According to the Biden administration’s accounting, nearly every dollar of the HHS program, known as the Public Health and Human Services Emergency Fund, has been allocated or committed in some way, a fiscal term that basically means that money is locked into contracts or other formal commitments.

That includes more than $87 billion that had been set aside for testing and other mitigation measures earlier in the pandemic, for example, and about $178 billion authorized by Congress to shore up finances for hospitals and others. public health facilities, according to the data.

The Biden administration has not provided a more detailed accounting to Congress in each of the spending categories, including specific recipients of some of the funds or how long until the money runs out. An official pointed out Thursday that the administration has plenty of help to meet current needs and fulfill existing commitments, including Biden’s pledge to make 1 billion free tests available to Americans. But the official still confirmed that almost all of the previous aid under the critical HHS program had been earmarked for some use.

In recent days, senior White House officials appeared to publicly echo some of those concerns, suggesting that Congress may need to act in the coming days to ensure the country is prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“We have what we need in this current fight against omicron, and we’ve done a lot to prepare for what lies ahead,” White House coronavirus response chief Jeff Zients said Wednesday. during a press conference with journalists. “We have recalls for all Americans, we got 20 million doses of the highly effective Pfizer pill. We expanded stockpiles and stockpiles of PPE, including masks and gloves.”

But, Zients added, the country “envisions a future where we will likely need funding for treatments and pills; we will need funding to continue to expand testing and to continue to lead the effort, as we have done with 1.2 billion doses given to the world, but to continue to lead this effort to vaccinate the world. »

“So we will work with Congress as needed to ensure that we have the necessary funding to continue to fight this virus,” he said.

The uncertainty serves to re-emphasize the difficulty lawmakers and watchdogs face as they struggle to keep up with more than $6 trillion in total emergency spending approved since the health crisis began. public. The numbers recently shared with Congress are far more timely and comprehensive than publicly available spending data, which has made it difficult for experts to gauge the country’s pandemic preparedness.

“It’s not readily available or apparent,” warned Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s really important to understand if it’s enough…so that if more is needed, the case can be made.”

The data also adds new complexity to the tense negotiations underway on Capitol Hill over the future of broader government funding. This must-have package could serve as a vehicle for another round of coronavirus-related relief, though lawmakers have yet to agree on an exact approach.

Democrats have laid the groundwork to seek billions of dollars to improve the global rollout of a vaccine as part of a longer-term spending program. Other party lawmakers have explored new programs that would target families in financial difficulty, including those without access to paid family and medical leave. And even more have joined Republicans in seeking to increase the aid available to restaurants, gyms and other small businesses that have seen another disruption to their bottom line.

But their efforts have already caught the attention of Republicans, many of whom felt the Biden administration should spend more wisely before lawmakers approve even more aid. Speaking before the chamber Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., explicitly called on the White House to reprogram existing money before returning to Congress to seek more.

“Let’s start the discussion by talking about reallocating the hundreds of billions already on hold,” McConnell said.