Friday, April 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is seeking $26 million in emergency funds from Congress to help deal with the hepatitis C crisis in Southern Nevada, but the request will likely run into political resistance from President Bush and congressional Republicans who oppose tacking any extra spending onto a bill for the Iraq war.
Even Nevada’s other senator, Republican John Ensign, is against it.
The money Reid is requesting would go toward ensuring the estimated 40,000 patients who have been potentially exposed to hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV during routine procedures at a private Las Vegas clinic can be tested — even if they have no insurance or ability to pay for the screenings.
Money would also go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent the procedures that caused the outbreak in Nevada from happening elsewhere. The CDC’s director has feared the practice at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, where medical staff reused syringes and dipped multiple times into single-dose medicine vials, could be the “tip of the iceberg” of poor practices nationwide. Several other states in recent years have had similar crises.
Michael Walsh, director of administration for the Southern Nevada Health District, which would receive $5.25 million, said if the money comes through, “we could be sure the vast majority of people could get tested.”
Although notices have been sent to 40,000 patients of the Endoscopy Center, the district says the number of patients potentially exposed to the virus at that site could be as high as 60,000. Of those, an estimated 15,000 have no insurance or ability to pay for the screening, which costs $200 on average. Some labs are offering free screenings.
The district has also incurred unexpected expenses in its $72 million budget, including the $16 being charged each time a patient calls a help line and talks to an operator. The tally for that service so far is $300,000.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat, said partisan politics should not delay getting money to help those in need.
“No one planned for this crisis to strike Southern Nevada and it is more than appropriate to make this request,” Berkley said in a statement.
“While others may want to sit on their hands, I am not willing to wait another nine months or longer for these funds, which are desperately needed,” she said. “Those affected by this exposure incident are not being treated according to political party, so why is partisanship being used as an excuse to fail these patients and their families?”
The best chance Reid has for swiftly securing funds for Nevada is on the emergency war spending bill now moving through Congress. That bill would allocate $108 billion Bush has requested to continue the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. War funding has been routinely allocated as emergency spending rather than through traditional budget channels.
Though Democrats have proved unwilling to withhold war funding, as some in the party would like, they are using these bills to carry spending requests. On one of last year’s war spending bills, Reid tried to get funding for various items for Nevada, including to fight the devastating Mormon cricket infestation.
But Bush and other Republicans are agitating against a repeat performance on this bill. During a speech last week, Bush warned Congress against fattening the bill with extras.
“This bill must also be fiscally responsible,” Bush railed from the White House. “It must not exceed the reasonable $108 billion request I sent to Congress months ago.”
If it does, Bush added, “I’ll veto it.”
Republicans in both chambers have started making similar assertions, insisting the bill that comes forward in the next several weeks be free of extras.
Ensign opposes Reid’s legislation because of concern that it “opens the door for 100 senators and 435 congressmen to add home state spending that will put our troops’ funding in danger,” spokesman Tory Mazzola said.
“The question is not if the CDC has an obligation to help Nevadans recover from the hepatitis C scare. It does,” Mazzola said. “The question here is whether we try to add to the CDC’s
$6 billion budget on an emergency bill that is critical to fund our men and women in uniform.”
Republican Rep. Jon Porter supports channeling extra funds to the Health District and the CDC, but is withholding his decision on the Senate request until he sees “how, and if, the additional funding will be presented in the House,” his spokesman said.
Republican Rep. Dean Heller, whose district includes most of the northern part of the state but dips into the Las Vegas area, did not return calls and messages seeking comment.
But the party has been clear. “The emergency funding for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is for Iraq and Afghanistan,” said a spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate.
Reid stands by the request, especially as Nevada faces its own budget problems.
“If ever there was an emergency, this is it,” Reid spokesman Jon Summers said. “We’ve got to first stop the bleeding that is at hand, then prevent it from happening again. I don’t think anyone who’s aware and informed of this situation considers this an extra.”
Meanwhile, the House committee this week heard testimony on a related issue — hospital-acquired illnesses, which officials say are among the 10 leading causes of death in this nation, accounting for 100,000 deaths annually.
A report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has called on the federal Health and Human Services Department to play a greater role in overseeing best practices among health care practitioners. The GAO is likely to next investigate practices at outpatient clinics such as the one in Nevada, where the hepatitis C outbreak occurred.
“Improvements in quality of care over the last decade have been disappointing: Patients continue to suffer harm that is preventable and costly,” testified Dr. Peter J. Pronovost, medical director of the Center for Innovations in Quality Patient Care at Johns Hopkins University, in a statement submitted to the committee. “To alter this reality, we must invest in research which will identify and reliably deliver effective therapies. There is no shortcut.”