Late update: The Department of Health and Human Services responded to a letter sent by McConnell suggesting the agency was wasting money on Obamacare outreach that could be used for Zika. “The last person who should criticize HHS for not being focused on Zika is the Senate Republican leader who has refused to compromise in order to get a clean, bipartisan funding bill to the President’s desk,” an HHS spokesperson said. Read more here.
As pressure grows on Congress to pass additional Zika funding, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) used recent instability in the Obamacare exchanges to deflect blame on the White House.
McConnell sent a letter Friday to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell demanding details on how the administration will fund a reported Obamacare enrollment campaign, while asking “why it believes that such funds would be better spent propping up the failed Obamacare exchanges than other important public health priorities – such as preventing the spread of Zika.”
“If the Administration has identified alternative sources of funding for this Obamacare advertising campaign, wouldn’t those funds be better allocated to other public health priorities, such as Zika prevention, response, and treatment activities?” McConnell wrote.
The letter was based on a report in the New York Times that the administration was considering new ways to encourage enrollment in the Affordable Care Act individual marketplaces ahead of the Nov. 1 open enrollment period. The report came after Aetna announced it was slashing its participation in the ACA exchanges. Other major insurers have indicated they planned to scale back their Obamacare involvement, claiming big financial losses driven by a risk pool sicker than expected.
McConnell said he was writing Burwell to “express my surprise at published news reports indicating that the Administration is planning a new advertising campaign to promote Obamacare’s exchanges.” He went on to ask her a number of questions about whether such a campaign was in the works and where in the budget the HHS was pulling funding to finance it.
“I am particularly concerned that taxpayer resources could be used for these campaigns at a time when there are higher priority public health needs,” he wrote.
Congress has refused the White House’s request to approve more funding to finance Zika research, prevention and treatment efforts. President Obama initially asked for $1.9 billion. In response the House of Representatives passed a package offering about third of that — $622 million. The Senate upped its offering to $1.1 billion — an increase the House agreed to — but added a number of riders to which Democrats objected, including provisions that limited spending on family planning (Zika can be transmitted through sexual contact) and that defunded parts of Obamacare. Senate Democrats ultimately blocked the bill, citing the riders and that it was still too small of an amount.
Congressional Republicans have said that Democrats should be held responsible for the lack of additional Zika funding because of their filibuster, while insisting that there is money already in the HHS budget the administration could divert to research and prevention.
Public concern about the virus is rising, particularly with reports of transmission in southern Florida.
Read McConnell’s letter to Secretary Burwell below: