With COVID funding stuck in Congress, White House raises alarms about shortfall
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is warning that the United States would not be prepared for another COVID-19 variant or surge in cases if Congress doesn’t approve billions in stalled emergency funding.
Senior administration officials told reporters Tuesday that without the $22.5 billion the White House requested last month, there will be a drop-off in the federal government’s ability to purchase tests, treatments and vaccines.
“Waiting to provide funding until we’re in a worse spot with the virus will be too late,” one official said.
Congressional leaders reached a bipartisan agreement last week for $15 billion to battle COVID-19, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi pulled that provision from a larger government funding bill over concerns from moderate Democrats.
Those lawmakers were frustrated that party leaders agreed to pay for some new pandemic spending with previously approved funding to state governments. While some states had already drawn down their portion of the money, other states had not yet been able to, meaning some states would have been short-changed while others would have already received the full amount.
House Democrats later released a stand-alone $15.6 billion COVID-19 emergency spending bill that did not use previously approved state funding as a way to pay for some new pandemic spending.
The House has not yet voted on the bill and even if it passes, it’s not expected to get the level of Republican backing needed to clear the Senate.
Biden administration officials said Tuesday that without more money from Congress, the federal government wouldn’t be able to purchase additional monoclonal antibody treatments. That will force officials to begin reducing the allocation the federal government sends to state governments by 30%.
The federal government will begin to immediately scale back payments to health care providers who treat uninsured individuals for COVID-19. Those payments will end completely in April without new funding.
The country’s testing capacity would begin to run out in June and officials wouldn’t be able to purchase vaccine booster doses for all Americans if another variant emerges or public health officials believe a universal booster is needed in the future.
The U.S. Agency for International Development would no longer have the funding needed to provide vaccines around the world, possibly leading to the emergence of a new variant, officials said.
The Biden administration officials said they are exploring the idea of switching over the role for purchasing testing, treatments and vaccines to health insurance companies in the long term. But the officials rejected the idea that should begin sooner.
One official said that if the U.S. were to stop purchasing COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines, that would leave health insurance companies to compete against other nations.
That could be problematic if the country experiences a new surge in cases or a new variant in the coming months.
The Biden administration officials did not want to comment directly on whether Democrats should use the budget reconciliation process they used to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package in March 2021 to pass this emergency aid.
The official said there are “many avenues Congress can use to” provide emergency funding, but noted the White House is leaving those decisions to lawmakers.
That process, which typically takes months, would allow Democrats to get around the Senate’s 60-vote legislative filibuster and approve funding without Republican support.