WASHINGTON -- The lead agency tasked with responding to the threat of Ebola both within the United States and abroad has seen its budget drop dramatically in the past four years.
In breaking the news on Tuesday that the first Ebola patient had been diagnosed in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assured Americans that it had adequate resources to combat the virus. The public health care system in America is dramatically more advanced than those in West Africa, currently the site of the largest Ebola outbreak in history. And as far as pathogens go, Ebola's ability to spread is limited. It can only be transferred through the exchange of bodily fluids.
But CDC officials and lawmakers who support the agency warn that years of austerity has hobbled both the CDC and the National Institutes of Health, both in terms of their ability to combat future outbreaks and their ability to prevent them from happening in the first place.
According to numbers provided by a Senate Budget Committee staffer, the CDC has actually recovered nicely from the sequestration cuts that went into effect a year ago. The agency has been allocated $5.882 billion in fiscal year 2014, compared to the $5.432 billion it received after the cuts took place.
But if you move back the timeline a bit, you see that investment in the CDC has still fallen dramatically. The agency's current budget, in fact, is nearly $600 million lower than it was in 2010.
2010: $6.467 billion
2011: $5.737 billion
2012: $5.732 billion
2013: $5.721 billion
2013 (after sequestration took effect): $5.432 billion
2014: $5.882 billion
While some of the funding was restored after the budget agreement between the House and Senate in early 2014, "there is still a gap between FY14 and FY10," the Senate aide noted.
Biomedical research advocates are hoping that news of a patient in Dallas being diagnosed with the Ebola virus will draw more attention to that budget shortfall. Within hours of the CDC making the announcement on Tuesday, lawmakers were issuing clarion call warnings.
“A strong response to the Ebola outbreak starts with a strong investment in the CDC and other public health agencies working on the frontlines of this epidemic," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chair of both the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education -- which funds the CDC.
"It’s critical to stop the dis-investment in the development of vaccines and treatments, by restoring funds lost to austerity cuts and inflation at NIH and BARDA [Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority],” Harkin said.
The NIH’s funding shortage has received a good deal of attention. Its current budget, $29.9 billion, falls well short of where it stood prior to sequestration taking effect in 2013. Adjusted for inflation, the amount is lower than what the NIH received during each year of the George W. Bush administration except the first.
The CDC, likewise, has had to do more with less over the past few years as the federal government has tightened its belt.
And officials there have been upfront about their fears of what austerity might mean for the agency. Director Tom Frieden warned in a speech last year to the National Press Club about the effects that budget cuts would have on things like molecular detection.
And a memo the CDC released on sequestration highlighted a number of areas that would suffer with less funding. At the top of the list: “Reduced ability to ensure global disease protection.”