Steve Benen observes that the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees our response to pandemics like swine flu, is currently without its Secretary. Governor Kathleen Sebelius, whose own state had some of the first cases of swine flu in the US, is waiting for Senate confirmation. The delay? Anti-abortion activists couldn’t kill her nomination, but extracted the delay as a compromise. It doesn’t actually get them anything tangible, but it makes them feel tough. Benen writes:
I’m not arguing the U.S. response to the swine-flu problem is necessarily less effective because Kathleen Sebelius’ nomination has been delayed; I’m simply not in a position to evaluate the inner working of the bureaucracy. I am arguing that in the midst of “public health emergency,” and a global response to a possible pandemic, it’d be awfully nice if Republicans could be grown-ups for a little while, and let the federal government have a Health and Human Services Secretary.
Unfortunately, foresight and a deep concern for public wellbeing are not features of even moderate Republicans, it seems. In their campaign to undermine President Obama’s first days in office, Republicans, led by Maine’s Susan Collins and Louisiana’s David Vitter and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter, demanded that funds for flu preparedness be stripped from the stimulus bill. Senator Vitter derided the funding for flu preparedness, saying it was “clearly non stimulative” and “nothing to do with job creation and economic stimulus.” He added “People might say: You are not worried about a pandemic flu and the threat that causes to our Nation? I am. That is a serious subject. … Maybe we need to do more; I do not know.”
We know now that more preparedness would help. Students and workers are staying home to prevent the flu from spreading, and better preparation might’ve eased that financial burden.
Even so, Senator Collins wondered “What does that have to do with an economic stimulus package?”
Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry, who recently was threatening to secede rather than take federal stimulus money, is begging the Department of Health and Human Services to spend more money on Texas.
President Obama reminded us all in his speech to the National Academy of Sciences that spending on basic science is crucial both for the economy and for our safety and stability as a nation. Speaking of the swine flue outbreak, he noted that
Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been before. If there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it is today.
To move that forward, he needs his Secretary of HHS in place, and he needs Republicans to be adults about public health funding, and he needs Congress to move on boosting funding for basic science, medical research, and applied epidemiology. And Congress needs to seriously consider how much longer we can afford to provide no guaranteed sick leave and no reliable way for people to get non-emergency medical care.