$3.8 Billion OK'd For Bird Flu

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The Senate agreed to more than $600 billion in health spending on Wednesday night, voting to approve funding for bird flu readiness but cutting some other health programs.

It was the final hurdle for the bill before going to President Bush for a signature.

Lawmakers reached final agreement on the bill funding the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, and large parts of Medicare and Medicaid, but only after a weeklong fight.

Funds for Bird Flu

In a separate bill on Wednesday, the Senate also included $3.8 billion for a bird flu readiness plan, only a part of the $7.1 billion requested by President Bush. Lawmakers suggested that they plan to fund the rest of the project next year.

The health bill devotes $400 billion to required spending for Medicare and the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor. It also spent $29 billion on the National Institutes of Health, though the 1% increase over last year's budget was the smallest increase for the agency in several decades.

The CDC received $5.3 billion, approximately $700 million more than last year. At the same time, several CDC programs, including a $60 million youth health media campaign, were terminated.

Overall, the bill allowed $2.8 billion less spending than Congress cleared last year. Several GOP lawmakers saw that as too meager.

"It's really been cut virtually to shreds," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), who chairs the subcommittee with jurisdiction over health spending. Specter said he would "hold my nose" and vote for the bill to avoid even deeper cuts if it failed.

The bird flu plan also included controversial language shielding vaccine and drug manufacturers from lawsuits from people injured by their products during an epidemic. Republicans have long said the protections were a key incentive for vaccine makers to enter the risky U.S. market.

"You've got to be able to incentivize them," Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told reporters.

Democrats blasted the plan because it gave no money to a companion fund designed to compensate workers who could be injured by vaccines.

"The consumers under this provision have no power, zero. If you get damaged you're on your own," says Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

A senior Senate GOP aide said lawmakers would move to fund the remainder of the pandemic preparedness plan early in the spring of 2006.

SOURCES:Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

By Todd Zwillich
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
© 2005, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved

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