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Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Ebola and Future Public Health Threats

November 21, 2014—The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Nov. 19 held a hearing focused on the U.S. response to Ebola domestically and abroad. Common themes of the discussion included details of the administration’s emergency supplemental funding request, the need to support hospitals designated as treatment facilities, and the strategy to coordinate government agencies better in the wake of a public health crisis.

The committee heard testimony from Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) Nicole Lurie, M.D., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden, M.D., U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg, and Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner David Lakey, M.D.

In his opening statement,Chair Tom Carper (D-Del.) highlighted the need to be proactive to possible future outbreaks of infectious diseases stating, “Whether it’s the Ebola virus, influenza, or a disease we have yet to hear about, the bottom line is the same: we need to be better prepared and ready to respond.”

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) asked witnesses for an estimate of the costs to care for an Ebola patient. Dr. Frieden responded that “the care of patients with Ebola can be quite expensive because it requires intensive care. It needs to be done in a place where you have to actually not admit other patients.” Noting that the resulting cost of care ranges from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, Sen. Johnson highlighted concerns that costly treatment of Ebola patients could “utterly overwhelm our health care system.”

Describing the efforts of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to prepare as a designated treatment center, as well as the institution’s research mission, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) inquired about issues obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE), a topic that Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also raised.  

Dr. Lurie explained the CDC’s strategy to help hospitals prepare to become treatment centers, noting that such institutions that notify the CDC can be put on a manufacturers’ priority list for PPE. Additionally, if an institution were to receive a patient, additional PPE would be available to that hospital from the CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile. Dr. Lurie also stated, “One of the things that we've done with the hospital preparedness program is really focus on preparedness at a community level instead of an individual hospital level, to be more efficient at sharing resources that are scarce.”

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) mentioned funds in the president’s emergency funding request intended “to immediately respond to patients with highly-infectious diseases such as Ebola,” and highlighted efforts by hospitals to gear up in his state. He asked, “Will any of this $166 million for emergency funding be allocated to those hospitals to help offset the costs of the preparedness efforts, particularly those in northeast Ohio in our case, but also in Texas and elsewhere who had to quickly respond to the concerns of those who had been infected?”

Dr. Frieden responded, “In terms of the reimbursement for past expenditures up until now, that's something which the administration has indicated it's quite willing to work out wording with Congress on.”

Emphasizing his preference for a regional approach, Sen. Portman described a bill (S.2942) he introduced with Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) to bolster preparedness at and support targeted investments to hospitals that seek voluntary designation as “Ebola Treatment Hubs.”

Sen. Portman acknowledged the need for every hospital to achieve a basic level of preparedness and stated, “But to have that expertise…isn’t practical at every hospital and every clinic, and that level of commitment of resources for the containment, isolation, and so on. So, I hope you’ll look at this legislation and be willing to work with us to try to figure out the most effective and efficient way to deal with potential problems in the future.”

Sens. Portman and Markey also sent a Nov. 19 letter to Senate leadership, requesting that their legislation be included in the emergency supplemental.  


Tannaz Rasouli
Sr. Director, Public Policy & Strategic Outreach
Telephone: 202-828-0525


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