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Thompson Highlights HHS Budget Priorities

Continuing his visits to Capitol Hill, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health this week. The Secretary highlighted the FY2002 budget priorities for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Sec. Thompson clarified the administration’s position on a number of issues during questioning before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on April 24. Subcommittee Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA) discussed his strong support for stem cell research, saying, “If there were any possibility that those embryos would become life, then I would be the last person to support this, but they are going to be discarded.”

Sec. Thompson responded that the issue of stem cell research was being evaluated by the HHS General Counsel as well as by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He added that the NIH has received two applications for research on stem cells and that the applications would be reviewed and, pending the decisions of the review, such research might be funded by April 2002.

Sen. Specter also questioned Sec. Thompson regarding family planning and abstinence education, noting that there were diverging viewpoints about abstinence-only education. Stating that the “President has taken a strong position that they should be treated equal,” Sec. Thompson added that abstinence-only programs were underfunded in comparison to family planning programs. “There is movement afoot to evaluate funding for both programs,” he said.

Several Senators also expressed their concern about the nursing shortage. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) stated that technical schools in her home state had advised her that part of the problem stemmed from welfare reform. Under welfare reform (P.L. 104-193), welfare recipients are required to begin working within two years of receiving benefits. Up to 12 months of vocational training may be counted as work activity. However, Sen. Murray said that the one-year limitation served as a disincentive for women to enter the nursing field. She asked that during the reauthorization of welfare reform attempts be made to expand the education credit to two years.

Agreeing that “the nursing shortage is a severe problem in America, and it’s going to get worse,” Sec. Thompson responded that he did not believe welfare reform was the cause of the problem, but rather it was the long hours and low pay.

Also expressing concern about funding for child care, Sens. Murray and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) asked for clarification about the budget request for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). “I’ve looked at the numbers…and it looks like a cut. When you earmark funding for older children it looks like you are taking money from younger children,” stated Sen. Landrieu.

Noting that the President had proposed a $400 million set-aside for after-school activities for children, Sec. Thompson responded that the funding would provide services for an additional 500,000 children. “It’s not a cut….We added $200 million for discretionary funding…and another $150 million on the mandatory side for child care spending.”

Appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health on April 26, Sec. Thompson answered extensive questions regarding patient protection legislation and medical privacy. He assured the subcommittee that the President was committed to enacting a patients’ bill of rights and urged action by this summer. He asked members of the subcommittee to work toward a compromise in order to move things forward, saying that the only outstanding issues are scope and liability. “We’re not that far apart here….I need your help. I can’t be the only one to compromise.”

Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) also discussed the issue of providing health insurance coverage to the uninsured. He asked the Secretary if the administration was open to expanding current federal programs in addition to pursuing tax credits. Stating that he was “supportive of expanding” the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, Sec. Thompson added, “It’s expensive and I don’t know where the money is….We think tax credits will work…and they will cover 6 million people.” He also added that any expansion should occur in the context of reform at the Health Care Financing Administration, the federal agency that manages such programs.

During his appearance on the House side, Sec. Thompson was further questioned about funding for Title X, the nation’s family planning program, and abstinence-only education programs. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) noted that the President had campaigned on providing equal funding for abstinence-only and family planning programs, yet abstinence-only programs did not receive a substantial increase in the FY2002 budget request. “We know that there is a disparity between family planning and abstinence-only….We are not going to take from one and give to another, but we want to grow the program [abstinence-only programs] over the next four years,” responded Sec. Thompson.

Rep. Pitts also inquired as to whether there had been violations in current law, which prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. Sec. Thompson answered, “The law is very clear with this regard….We have strictly enforced the law.”

Continuing the line of questioning, Rep. Pitts discussed the recent approval of RU-486. “Women in other countries are protected in significantly greater fashion than here in the U.S.,” stated Rep. Pitts as he asked the Secretary if there were efforts to review the drug’s approval.

Stating that empirical data demonstrating that RU-486 was unsafe had not been presented to the Food and Drug Administration, Sec. Thompson said, “All drugs are reviewed for safety….Once a drug has been approved, the law does not provide for the withdrawal of the drug…only for safety reasons.” Several members raised concern about level-funding for the Ryan White CARE Act under the President’s budget request. Saying that “Ryan White is a good program,” Sec. Thompson added that “there are priorities,” and that the administration made the decision to funnel resources to researching a vaccine that would cure HIV/AIDS.

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