Senators asked questions on proposed fiscal year (FY) 2023 funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), future COVID-19 relief, and mental health care during a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on May 4. The hearing included testimony from Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra, which followed his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health [refer to Washington Highlights, April 29].
Subcommittee ranking member Senator Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) expressed his concern that although the president’s budget requested $5 billion to support the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), it only provides a $250 million increase for the NIH base budget [refer to Washington Highlights, April 1]. He added that together he and subcommittee chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) have worked for over seven years to increase the NIH budget by nearly 50%.
“I'm confident that based on our past working on this topic, zero will not be the number we come up with [for the NIH increase] but why did you submit zero as opposed to an increase in NIH and money for ARPA-H as well?” Blunt asked Becerra.
Becerra noted that the FY 2023 request was generated before final FY 2022 funding levels were determined. “Now knowing what the omnibus bottom line is for NIH, we will work using that bottom line to talk about increases for NIH. So, we look forward to working with you to make sure that NIH continues to receive the robust funding that it has always received from Congress,” he stated.
In his testimony, Becerra reflected upon the department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including investments in the development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostic tests. He emphasized the department’s successes, including an historic surge in enrollment through the Affordable Care Act Insurance Marketplaces, stating, “today, more Americans have insurance for their health care than ever before in our country.”
Several members referred to the budget request’s proposed investments in pandemic preparedness, with Murray underscoring the urgent need and highlighting her own legislation in this area, including the AAMC-supported Public Health Infrastructure Saves Lives Act (S. 674) and the Prepare for and Respond to Existing Viruses, Emerging New Threats, and Pandemics Act (PREVENT Pandemics Act, S. 3799) [refer to Washington Highlights, March 18]. “We know all too well things like modern data systems, a robust public health workforce, access to tests and vaccines, clear information and more can make all the difference when it comes saving lives during a public health crisis,” she said.
In her opening statement, Murray emphasized the continued need for investment in pandemic response and urged her colleagues to support a $10 billion COVID-19 supplemental funding proposal [refer to Washington Highlights, April 8]. “After all the hard-won progress we have made in the fight against COVID-19, families in Washington state are depending on us to pass urgently needed emergency COVID funding for tests, for treatments, and for vaccines to protect our communities across the country.”
Blunt and other subcommittee members joined Murray in highlighting the need for Congress to pass supplemental COVID-19 funding. “We are not out of the woods yet with COVID-19 and we need to be prepared for a future wave,” he said. Congress failed to vote on a bipartisan proposal to fulfill the administration’s $10 billion request for additional supplemental funds in April [refer to Washington Highlights, April 8].
Murray also reflected upon the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and well-being of children and young people. “Over the last two years, we have seen a sharp rise in youth mental health emergencies. ... we’re already stretched thin when it comes to providing communities with the support they need to address these crises.” She lauded the budget’s proposed investments in school-based mental health care, early childhood intervention, community mental health centers, and the 988 suicide prevention and crisis support line. Blunt echoed this sentiment, noting that mental health is an area in which he feels the subcommittee can “set aside [their] partisan difficulties.”
Murray inquired further about the budget’s proposed investments in youth mental health, including a provision that would allow states to allocate 10% of their mental health block grant funding towards prevention and early intervention programs. The budget proposes to significantly expand the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic (CCBHC) program, which provides integrated mental and physical health care, 24/7 crisis intervention services, and wraparound, evidence-based interventions to support communities impacted by mental health and substance use disorders. Blunt expressed his support for increased investment in the program, as well as a provision that would allow states to turn CCBHC demonstration programs into permanent state plan options.
The subcommittee plans to reconvene on May 17 for testimony on the FY 2023 NIH budget request.