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Sunday, May 28th, 2023

House advances third iteration of bipartisan all-hazards legislation

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The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday approved the newest version of bipartisan legislation that would keep Americans safe against natural disasters and chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) threats.

Introduced on Jan. 8, the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness and Advancing Innovation Act of 2019, H.R. 269, received House approval the same day in a 401 to 17 vote.

U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) sponsored H.R. 269. U.S. Reps. Susan W. Brooks (R-IN), Bob Latta (R-OH), U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ) and Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) are among the bill’s seven original cosponsors. Many of the same lawmakers also played key roles in the original law’s 2006 enactment and subsequent first reauthorization in 2013.

“I am proud this reauthorization bill reflects extensive feedback from medical and public health preparedness and response stakeholders, so we can better prepare for and combat the known threats of today and the unknown threats of tomorrow,” Brooks said.

During the 115th Congress, Brooks also on Jan. 19, 2018, introduced the same-named H.R. 7328, which likewise received House approval. But the previous bill didn’t advance in the U.S. Senate before the congressional session ended, prompting the lawmakers to reintroduce the measure on Tuesday.

“Biological threats, such as Ebola, smallpox or the anthrax attacks after Sept. 11, 2001, can devastate communities, whether occurring naturally or manufactured into weapons of mass destruction by nation states or terrorist organizations,” said Brooks, noting that H.R. 269 would bolster the federal response to public health and national security threats by closing the gaps in the nation’s emergency preparedness and response plans.

H.R. 269, the congresswoman added, would ensure the nation has “more medical professionals trained to keep people safe in the event of a natural disaster or if an attack were to take place.”

In fact, such CBRN threats aren’t hypothetical, she said on the House floor prior to its vote.

“The ongoing Ebola outbreak is not the second largest outbreak in history,” Brooks said. “Since August of 2018, 374 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo have died from Ebola, bringing the total to 623 cases, with nine new confirmed cases in just the last week.”

Additionally, the bill would guarantee that equipment — such as hazmat suits, masks and vaccines — would be made available in the Strategic National Stockpile locations around the country.

At the same time, Brooks said, H.R. 269 would increase federal funds for both the BioShield Special Reserve Fund and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to ramp up the nation’s pipeline of medical countermeasures.

“While the investments BARDA is making into innovative research and treatments are critical, we must continue to address threats that have been around for years,” she said.

In a joint statement released after House approval of H.R. 269, Reps. Walden and Pallone — who recently were elected to switch their majority and minority positions on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — said the proposal also would modernize the regulatory framework for how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees over-the-counter drugs to better protect consumer safety.

“This package is the product of bipartisan compromise and we urge our Senate colleagues to quickly take up this package and send it to the president’s desk for signature,” the lawmakers said.

The Alliance for Biosecurity and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed in a joint Jan. 8 letter sent to House members in support of H.R. 269, calling the bill “central to protecting American citizens, organizations, and communities against natural and manmade biosecurity hazards.”

H.R. 269, for instance, would establish several important BARDA programs, including a Pandemic Influenza Program to support research and development activities around pandemic influenza and an Emerging Infectious Disease Program to monitor and address infectious diseases, according to the letter, which noted that both programs would be funded at $250 million per year through fiscal year 2023.

The bill also would establish new and sustainable market-based incentives to advance cutting-edge biomedical research, wrote Jack Kingston, secretariat at the Alliance for Biosecurity, and Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who said their groups support developing strategic partnerships between BARDA and the business community “to mitigate threats that could pose a significant risk to U.S. health and safety.”

Rep. Pallone also said the importance of H.R. 269 “cannot be overstated.”

“That is why our committee committed to working together last Congress on a bipartisan basis to ensure that the important authorities granted to the FDA in this law did not lapse,” the representative said in support of the bill on the House floor prior to the chamber’s vote.

He added that while the House passed the previous version of the legislation, the Senate “refused to act and instead allowed these important authorities to expire on Sept. 30.”

“While we were disappointed that we were unable to reauthorize [the bill] before that occurred, we continued to work with our Senate colleagues on moving this important legislation forward before the end of the 115th Congress,” Pallone said. “Unfortunately, just like before, the Senate did not act.

“I hope that the third time will be the charm and that our Senate colleagues will act quickly to pass this legislation,” the lawmaker said.

As the new Energy and Commerce chairman, Pallone on Tuesday moved to suspend the rules and pass H.R. 269, which had been referred to three House committees for consideration the same day.

In the U.S. Senate, however, the future of H.R. 269 remains uncertain, according to Capitol Hill media reports, which cite disagreement between U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), who both serve on the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and who largely were responsible for holding up earlier attempts to pass the all-hazards reauthorization bill.

Timing is critical at this point as expiration dates loom for certain authorities held by the U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, or ASPR, which oversees the nation’s public health and medical preparedness, response and recovery activities.