How to combat a potential pandemic would cost taxpayers about $6 billion — and jobs, Democrats say

Left-leaning groups have a potent message on the table in the coming months for a potential government funding deal. Democrats, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus in particular, have put forward a plan for financing pandemic preparedness efforts that would make jobs, not pet projects, the priority.

The blueprint, which is likely to be debated in the days before Congress’ April 7 funding deadline, includes an updated and focused version of a mandate for funding business-related potential Ebola (and any other major medical event) efforts like biodefense. Democrats would supplement that spending with $2 billion to increase other government economic programs — like manufacturing aid for critical industry and worker retraining — to prevent the economic fallout that usually comes with a pandemic. In the case of Ebola, these efforts would cost roughly $5 billion, with jobs and businesses at stake, according to Senate staffers who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. The Democrats’ legislation would probably sit in the hands of the appropriators; they typically aim to get financial relief to vulnerable communities and beneficiaries directly.

Liberal leaders including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are touting the budget proposal as an incentive for health care leaders to upgrade their workforce preparation levels — and a contingency plan to prevent another devastation like the 2001 anthrax attack that cost the U.S. more than $8 billion. It comes at an interesting time because the Pan American Health Organization recently released a report recommending that businesses support personnel readiness at at the same time officials and stakeholders work to ramp up capacity in health-care plants. The report recommended businesses share resources, and vice versa, and provided a toolkit for managing employee wellness.

“For some reason, it’s still not on the radar as a practical thing, and especially not the focus of American companies,” said Scott Allen, executive director of the national Business Alliance for Continuing Healthcare Excellence.

The report, prepared by OMB’s Office of Health Reform, sought to highlight what it described as the collective effect that economic activity might have on disease outbreaks. It particularly stressed the importance of management hygiene, which includes actions like promoting safe practices at work, and preventing workplace disruptions because of illness. While small companies might not have the resources to purchase stockpiles of medical drugs or machinery, the study noted that employees might drive productivity — and therefore investment — by routinely immunizing themselves with the flu shot, by flushing potentially hazardous water samples with disinfectant, and by being willing to undergo a background check.

Allen estimated that half of health care facilities have put together emergency plans to be operational in the event of an infectious disease outbreak. Additionally, he said almost 60 percent of hospitals and clinics were planning to purchase a containment unit — a sort of hospital equivalent to a flood-proof police station, where staff could treat patients, which, for instance, might mitigate the outbreaks that have come recently in Missouri and Kentucky.

The report noted that average mortality from respiratory disorders like the flu was less than 2 percent in 2014. While that means a broad-based pandemic could still kill far fewer people, it shows the need for more robust preparedness plans. The report also warned that labor costs for health centers might rise with a pandemic, and that workers would likely have to take unpaid days off.

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