The Department of Health and Human Services doesn't have the funding it needs to prepare for a public health emergency, according to an official at the agency.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing on Wednesday that focused on the reauthorization of the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act. At the hearing Robert Kadlec, M.D., HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, said that the agency is "working with half an aircraft carrier" to address the needs of 320 million people in the event of a public health emergency.
"We can't do more things with limited resources," he told senators.
PAHPA became law in 2006 and is made up of a number of emergency preparedness programs, including drug and vaccine development. Ranking committee member, Washington Democrat Patty Murray, praised the bipartisan law, saying it can be a stepping stone for further evidence-based preparedness efforts.
"I am hopeful we can continue that progress with legislation that focuses on the science and evidence-based polices we know work to mitigate public health crises ... and enables us to respond to the next crisis with foresight, rather than learn from the next tragedy with hindsight," Murray said in her opening remarks.
The Infectious Disease Society of America urged legislators from both sides of the aisle to take advantage of the opportunity to bolster public health responses that the hearing represents.
"In an increasingly interconnected world, an emerging public health threat anywhere poses a potential threat everywhere," IDSA said in a statement.
Recent public health crises, including the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, prove that there is more work to be done, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in his testimony (PDF).
The damage caused by the hurricane in particular showcased issues within the medical supply chain that must be addressed, Gottlieb said. A number of drug manufacturers were impacted by widespread power outages and structural damage that hindered production of key drugs and supplies, including saline solution.
The saline shortage in particular had compounding effects on the industry, as it led some hospitals to store the product themselves—leading to an increased demand for empty IV bags that could not be met, Gottlieb said.
The hearing was not particularly contentious, but Murray did express concern that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Brenda Fitzgerald was unable to attend. Fitzgerald recused herself because of conflicts of interest related to her investments.
"I'm concerned that she still cannot give her full attention to all the pressing health threats we face and hope these conflicts of interest will be resolved soon," Murray said.