CHN: Congress Fails to Act on Bills to Help Communities of Color and Other Vulnerable Populations

Despite calls from advocates urging Congress to act on several bills to prevent disproportionate harm to communities of color and other vulnerable populations before leaving town for the summer, members of Congress failed to do so. Advocates, including CHN, had called on Congress to take three important steps: provide funding to stop children from being poisoned by lead contamination in water and from lead-based paint, provide adequate funding for Zika prevention, and enact criminal sentencing reform. All of these issues have been debated at length and have bipartisan support.

The Senate did vote on July 14 for the second time on a bill to provide some funding for Zika prevention. However, the proposed bill, which was attached to the FY17 Military Construction-Veterans Affairs conference spending bill, contained $750 million in offsetting cuts, including money slated for fighting the Ebola virus, Affordable Care Act health exchanges for territories, and administrative funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, which Democrats opposed. It also contained language Democrats saw as attacks on clean water laws and restricting funding for Planned Parenthood clinics providing women’s health care services. In Puerto Rico, grappling with the first U.S. cases of Zika, Planned Parenthood clinics are the only source of health care available for many women. Thus, Senate Democrats blocked the bill (52-44, with 60 votes needed to advance), which was a compromise between House and Senate Republicans. Senate Dems had voted down this bill once before on June 28, insisting Congress instead send President Obama the Zika bill previously passed in the Senate that did not contain offsets or the objectionable language. The White House requested $1.9 billion in emergency funding back in February, and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan joined Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell in sending a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on July 12 urging Senate action before the summer recess. As CHN previously noted, major cuts to public health funding have left health departments unable to deal with a serious outbreak of the Zika virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 4,200 people already have been infected with the Zika virus in the U.S. and its territories, including 649 pregnant women.

Congress took no additional action on the Water Resources Development Act (S. 2848), which includes funding to clean up lead contamination in Flint, Michigan and elsewhere, nor on the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123), which would reduce sentences for many of those convicted of drug offenses – who are disproportionately African American, Latino, and low income. Congress has also yet to act to protect children and families from lead paint and dust in housing, which along with lead- contaminated water, also disproportionately affects low-income families.

In one minor victory, the Senate on July 13 passed (92-2) the final version of compromise legislation creating federal grant programs to combat prescription opioid and heroine abuse. Having already passed the House, the bill will go to President Obama, who is expected to sign it. The bill establishes grants to help states expand programs for prevention and treatment of drug abuse, allows the funds to be used for treatment alternatives to incarceration for parents whose children would end up in foster care, and makes it easier for states to provide access to naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug. While the bill authorizes $261 million to create new grant programs in the Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services, it does not actually provide any money for these programs. Democrats and the Obama Administration have sought as much as $920 million in emergency funding to fight the opioid crisis, and the White House said in a statement that although the President will sign the bill “because some action is better than none, he won’t stop fighting to secure the resources this public health crisis demands.” Republicans in both chambers objected to providing emergency funding, saying that funding should instead go through the regular appropriations process, meaning most of these new programs won’t receive any funding until a spending measure is passed that contains new money for them. When that will happen is unclear, but given the status of the appropriations process in Congress, it won’t be anytime soon.

Lead contamination