As Congress awaited the release of proposed bioterrorism legislation co-sponsored by the Senate's only physician, Senate Democratic leaders beat fellow lawmakers to the punch last week by proposing to spend $3 billion to guard against bioterrorism.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was poised to sweeten the pot for full passage of the Senate Finance Committee's economic recovery bill by inserting into it a $20 billion homeland security measure, including the bioterrorism funding.
The Finance Committee passed the economic recovery legislation in an 11-10 vote last week. One adopted amendment postpones for six months a long-awaited federal regulation putting further limits on a Medicaid loophole that allows some states to artificially inflate their federal matching rates.
Daschle's bioterrorism dollars would be earmarked for laboratories to provide staff, training and equipment to detect biological agents; for stockpiling vaccines for anthrax, smallpox and other diseases; and for improving local response capabilities. "At a time when Americans are feeling insecure, we owe it to them to invest in their security," Daschle said at a press conference at National Naval Medical Center outside Washington.
Meanwhile, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and William Frist (R-Tenn.), a surgeon, postponed the release of their $1.4 billion proposal for bioterrorism defense, which includes about $350 million for hospitals.
The bioterrorism dollars in the Finance Committee bill come on top of a proposed $67 billion in tax cuts and government assistance aimed at spurring the economy. As part of the measure, the government would spend an additional $10 billion in 2002 to subsidize health insurance coverage.
Workers who lost their jobs after Sept. 11 would receive a 75% subsidy to buy up to 12 months of continued coverage through their former employers under the bill. The subsidy program is expected to cost $6 billion next year and would end Dec. 31, 2002.
In addition, $1 billion in federal money would be budgeted in 2002 to help states extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers not eligible for continued coverage through their employers. And $4.7 billion would be used to increase the federal Medicaid matching rate in 2002 by a minimum of 1.5% to all states and by up to 3% to states with greater than average unemployment rates.
None of those provisions are part of a Republican-backed economic-stimulus package the House passed last month. The House bill has the support of President Bush, but it passed by the narrowest of margins. The Senate Finance Committee bill has only Democratic support, so it, too, will face strong opposition in the full Senate.
-With Ed Lovern