Right attacking stimulus money for health programs

Spurred by Matt Drudge, conservatives are targeting funding for healthcare and disease prevention that would have real economic benefit.

Published January 28, 2009 6:25PM (EST)

Matt Drudge already collected one scalp in the battle over the stimulus package that will be voted on in the House today. After he highlighted money for family planning programs in the bill, Republicans started an outcry, and President Obama prevailed upon congressional Democrats to strike the provision. Now, he's eyeing another part of the legislation that provides for healthcare funding, specifically $335 million for STD education and prevention programs.

In his "flash" on the subject, Drudge writes:

In the past, the CDC has used STD education funding for programs that many Members of Congress find objectionable and arguably unrelated to a mission of economic stimulus [such as funding events called 'Booty Call' and 'Great Sex' put on by an organization that received $698,000 in government funds.]

"Whether this funding has merit is not the question; the point is it has no business in an economic plan supposedly focused on job creation," says a stimulated Hill source.

Over at the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, Byron York took up the fight, and extended it, writing, "just looking at the part of the bill concerning some of the 'stimulus' money that would go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is pretty amazing." Then, referencing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fight against the Clinton administration's healthcare reform package, York added, "He didn't have to spin it for people if he could just get them to read what was actually in Mrs. Clinton's proposal. Now Republicans are asking the same thing again: Read the bill."

I took York's advice and read the section of the bill he posted -- turns out it's actually pretty impressive. First of all, the money that goes to these programs will mean new jobs. There are the additional people who'll be needed for administration, of course, as well as additional doctors and researchers. There will also be, to borrow a phrase, a trickle-down effect: Money for vaccinating uninsured children, for instance, means more vaccinations will be produced, which means there'll be more jobs producing and distributing the vaccines.

Some of the numbers York laid out do look big and scary. ("Not less than $954,000,000 shall be used as an additional amount to carry out the immunization program authorized by section 317(a), (j), and (k)(1) of the Public Health Service Act," for instance.) But if he'd done some quick background research, he would have found that these expenditures will actually greatly decrease other burdens on the economy down the road.

Take the $954 million directed to the CDC's Section 317 Immunization Program referenced above. That program is the primary source of funding for state immunization efforts, and at least one study, from 2006, found that it's extremely successful. "[I]ncreases in Section 317 funding were significantly and meaningfully associated with higher rates of vaccination coverage; a $10 increase in per capita funding corresponded with a 1.6-percentage-point increase in vaccination coverage," the study's authors wrote. "Policymakers charged with funding public health programs should consider this study’s findings, which indicate that money allocated to vaccine activities translates directly into higher vaccine coverage rates." And, of course, higher vaccine coverage rates mean lower healthcare costs down the line.

Then there's the $150 million in the bill "to carry out activities to implement a national action plan to prevent healthcare-associated infections ... of which not less $50,000,000 shall be provided to States to implement healthcare-associated infection reduction strategies." Again, $150 million sounds like a huge expense. But in a single year, the cost of hospital-acquired infections in a single state, Massachusetts, is estimated at more than $470 million. The human and fiscal cost for the whole country is much higher; in 2000, the CDC reported that these infections added almost $5 billion to healthcare costs in the U.S. That's more than 30 times the expenditure included in the stimulus package. The same year, the CDC blamed hospital-acquired infections for 88,000 deaths; that number is now estimated at about 100,000.

As for that $335 million for STD prevention, that number sort of pales when you consider the direct medical cost of STDs every year, which one 2000 study found was $6.5 billion. That same study notes that, for HIV patients at least, the government already assumes a large share of the burden; one group of researchers found that 47 percent of people receiving treatment for HIV were covered by Medicare, and 20 percent were uninsured.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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