Texas to lose nearly $3.6 million of slated aid to help pay for national response to virus
By Markian Hawryluk
April 4, 2016
Texas will lose nearly $3.6 million in public health emergency preparedness funding this year, after federal health officials held back $44.2 million for the national response to the emerging threat of the Zika virus.
The cut represents 9.6 percent of the $37.7 million Texas would have received. Based on percentage, the reduction is the largest of any state. However, Texas health officials say they will use federal funding left over from 2015 to minimize the effect on county and city health departments.
"You're shifting the dollars over to make health departments whole, which is good, but you still have a hole for what you were going to use those dollars from a state standpoint," said Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health & Environmental Services.
The leftover money would have been used to pay for a series of public health programs throughout the state, but the specific projects had not yet been determined.
With the reduction, Texas will receive $34.1 million in health emergency preparedness funds in 2016 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of that, the state plans to pass on $20.4 million to local health departments to help prepare for public health emergencies such as infectious disease outbreaks or natural disasters.
"The challenge will be if there are further reductions announced or if this reduction is ongoing," said Carrie Williams, a Department of State Health Services spokeswoman.
Per capita cuts
The money shifting started when the Obama administration asked Congress in February for $1.9 billion in emergency Zika funding. U.S. lawmakers adjourned on March 23 for their spring recess without approving the request. That left the CDC scrambling to find money for Zika preparation and response efforts that could not wait until Congress returns on April 12.
The state funding cuts were implemented according to the formula mandated by Congress, which provides a base amount to each state with additional per capita payments, a CDC spokesman said. As a result, states with larger populations absorbed a higher percentage cut.
Many state health departments still have not recovered from a 20 percent cut in public health emergency funds in 2013, which led to the elimination of more than 4,300 public health jobs nationwide that year. Many worry the latest cuts could hamper state and local health departments nationwide as they prepare for a potential Zika virus outbreak.
"It does not make much sense," said Dr. Oscar Alleyne, senior advisor for public health programs at the National Association of County & City Health Officials. "There will be a reduced ability to respond to the needs of our communities."
Congressional leaders suggested the CDC could shift funds allocated for the Ebola virus response to Zika needs. But CDC officials said the Ebola funds were allocated in part to improve the infrastructure in Africa to prevent future outbreaks. And a new case of Ebola last week in Liberia suggests the outbreak is not over.
Spending millions locally
Meanwhile, last week Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to the region's congressional delegation urging them to pass the $1.9 billion emergency appropriation the president requested for mosquito-transmitted Zika.
"We must not overlook the threat to Houston and other areas along the Gulf Coast," Turner said.
The mayor said the city expects to spend $3.6 million this year to clear illegal dumping and other trash that could facilitate mosquito breeding, and the Houston Health Department has implemented extra surveillance for Zika at a cost of $540,000 to $750,000. Those costs would increase significantly, he said, if the virus begins to circulate locally.
Texas has had 27 confirmed cases of Zika, although 26 of those were travelers returning from Latin America or the Caribbean where active transmission of the virus by mosquito is occurring. The remaining case was a women who was diagnosed after having sexual contact with someone infected abroad. Harris County and Houston Health Department reported a combined 12 confirmed cases.
Harris County spends more than $4 million a year on its mosquito abatement program, but 98 percent of those funds come from county tax dollars. Shah said Harris County could spend up to $3 million this year responding to Zika.