Sen. Susan Collins picked a bad time to oppose pandemic flu spending.

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April 27 2009 7:02 PM

Flu Fighters

Sen. Susan Collins says she hates the pork, not the swine.

Click here to read more from Slate on the swine flu. 

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine did not actually sneak into the workplaces of 40 Americans, jimmy open their lunchboxes, and lace their sandwiches with contaminated ham. What she did was strip $780 million dedicated to flu-pandemic prevention from the stimulus package in February. But judging by some reactions on the left, that act of legislative tinkering was just as bad.

"Do you want to know who to blame for the US not being optimally prepared for an influenza pandemic?" asked a Daily Kos blogger Thursday. "Start with Republican Senator from Maine Susan Collins." "Collins played politics with public health, and the economic recovery," wroteThe Nation's John Nichols. "That makes her about as bad a player as you will find in a town full of bad players." An online ad from Media Matters asks: "Senator Collins: Was saving $780 million worth it?"

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Collins insists that it was. Her objection isn't to pandemic-flu-prevention spending in general. She loves it! She supports it! She has requested more of it! She's just had a hard time voting for it lately.

A spokesman helpfully forwarded a letter Collins co-signed in December 2008 requesting a $905 million spending increase to help prevent a bioterrorist attack or flu pandemic. "And, in fact, the omnibus appropriations bill that was signed into law in March, just a month after the stimulus bill, contains $156 million for pandemic influenza research, which is $1.4 million more than the Fiscal Year 2008 level," writes Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. (Yes, Collins voted against that bill, too. But not because of the flu spending.)

No, her beef was with the spending vehicle. In a statement released Monday, she argued—as she did in February—that pandemic-flu spending is worthwhile but doesn't count as stimulus. "What does that have to do with stimulating the economy?" she asked at the time. (Not everyone agrees. "A lot of those dollars go into research and manufacturing," says Richard Hamburg of Trust for America's Health, a health-advocacy group. "I'd think that would stimulate job creation." Likewise, massive viral outbreaks aren't good for GDP.) To be fair, Collins also opposed other measures she thought would be less immediately stimulating, such as money for education and to increase broadband Internet access. And she is on record supporting even larger boosts to pandemic-flu spending than what was included in the stimulus.

Moreover, Collins was hardly the only obstacle between that $780 million and susceptible American immune systems. Since 2006, when President Bush made a commitment of $7.1 billion toward preventing flu pandemics, it has been difficult to spend every last dollar. About $5.6 billion got spent right away, and more was doled out in 2007. But over the next two years, the remaining money got shuffled from one bill to the next. Some members of Congress wanted to include it in the 2007 omnibus; others wanted to tack it onto a war supplemental. Eventually someone came up with the idea to include it in the stimulus. When that didn't work out, some of it got folded into the omnibus budget bill. Now lawmakers are looking for ways to incorporate the remaining spending into the president's 2010 budget or an upcoming war supplemental. The point being, there have been many opportunities to spend on pandemic flu, and not all of them have worked out.

"I don't think the stimulus decisions in the last two months affected [the rate at which we produce a swine flu vaccine] in any way," says Robert Kadlec, a former special assistant for homeland security to President George W. Bush.

Pandemic-flu experts say the problem is deeper than Collins. She was objecting to one-time spending, but the real need is for ongoing annual spending. Trust for America's Health estimates the federal government would need to spend $350 million a year just to keep state and local governments ready to respond to outbreaks. And that would only cover distributing information to the public, conducting drills, and other preparatory work. "That's just the baseline for planning," says Paul Jarris of theAssociation of State and Territorial Health Officials.

If an actual outbreak occurred, the government would have to dedicate billions more. It would have to cover stocking vaccines and antiviral medications, distributing lab equipment, and overtime pay for health care workers, ambulance drivers, and doctors.

In other words, it would be a lot more than $780 million. With the health of every American at stake, few members of Congress would have qualms about getting onboard. But just in case they needed an extra nudge, the answer is yes, it would create jobs.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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