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Senate Panel Approves Health Bill to Protect Against Future Pandemics

March 15, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Sen. Patty Murray

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee approved a bill Tuesday to put significant new resources into U.S. preparedness for any other pandemics that threaten the nation’s health and economy.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., described the PREVENT Pandemics Act as an effort to learn from the hard lessons of COVID-19.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved the bill as the U.S. death toll from the pandemic is on track to reach 1 million within a month.

In addition, scientific reports released in the past two weeks indicate long-term effects from the disease include increased risks of dementia and brain shrinkage.

Murray, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, mentioned that the number of COVID-19 infections has fallen this year to a manageable level, perhaps showing the worst of the pandemic is ending in the U.S.

She cautioned against complacency as risks remain that new variants of the virus could emerge.

“We all know how long of a road it has been to get here, how many loved ones we have lost,” Murray said.

The PREVENT Pandemics Act, S. 3799, is supposed to strengthen the health system “so that when the next public health crisis comes around, we are never in a position like this again,” she said.

PREVENT is an acronym for Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats.

Key provisions would build up a national stockpile of critical medical products and maintain domestic manufacturing capacity to supply them. Other sections of the bill assign the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to more closely monitor conditions that could lead to an epidemic and call for wider access to mental health services during a crisis.

The mental health provisions are a response to sharp spikes in violence, suicide and drug overdoses during the pandemic.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., described the bill as an effort to “do it better next time” there is a pandemic with a “whole of government approach.”

“The future, unfortunately, is hard to predict,” he said.

The bill does not specify an amount of money for its proposals, only that it would come from a Public Health Emergency Fund. The amount would vary depending on regular assessments of needs.

Similar proposals can be found in the Biden administration’s Build Back Better Act, which the president is trying to salvage pieces of in negotiations with congressional leaders.

An amendment added to the bill Tuesday would appropriate $170 million to hire more nurses for the health care system. The money would be used for scholarships to nursing schools and for student loan forgiveness.

“We have a major nursing crisis in this country,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who introduced the amendment.

The American Hospital Association was one of the medical industry groups that commented on the PREVENT Pandemics Act.

Regarding the proposal for maintaining domestic manufacturing capabilities for medical supplies, the association said in a statement, “This is vital in our nation’s ability to have a reliable supply chain during a public health emergency moving forward.”

The association added that it wished the bill would have allocated funding to subsidize hospitals during public health emergencies, such as when COVID-19 stretched their resources to their limits.

“We haven’t said we support the bill but we have expressed support for the goals of the bill,” Colin Milligan, American Hospitals Association spokesman, told The Well News.

The bill is one of at least four Congress is seriously considering this year. Others would provide more support for research institutions that develop medical equipment and would broaden genetic surveillance of biological hazards.

The PREVENT Pandemics Act next moves to a vote in the full Senate. No date has been set for the vote.

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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