Congress should set politics aside, do what’s right for Zika prevention
By Sheila Jackson Lee and Rosa DeLauro
Across the country, and especially along the Gulf Coast, the public health emergency of the Zika virus is sounding alarms that we must heed. Expectant mothers are terrified to go outside for fear of birth defects stemming from a bite from a Zika-infected mosquito.
How did we get here?
In February, the Obama Administration requested Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency Zika prevention funding. At the time of the president’s request, we had not seen local transmission of Zika on U.S. soil. We had months to act before the high-risk months of summer. Yet Republicans in Congress refused to adequately fund a response to the Zika virus.
They needlessly put American families at risk. And the results of their inaction are devastating: As of Aug. 31, there are almost 17,000 confirmed cases of Zika in the United States and its territories. More than 1,500 of them are pregnant women. More than 40 members of the military have been infected. Six babies have died.
Fortunately, there are cost-effective actions that can be taken immediately to prevent the spread of the Zika virus: expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and passing the President’s emergency Zika request. Nothing would be more effective in ensuring that at-risk women and girls receive the preventative reproductive health-care treatment and education needed to protect themselves and their babies from the Zika virus. Congress also needs to provide states with the resources they need to defend against the threat posed by the Zika virus.
Federal funding combined with additional health care that comes with Medicaid expansion can help Americans protect themselves from contracting Zika. Access to insurance through Medicaid expansion increases the likelihood that low-income girls and women will seek medical care sooner rather than later – and that they will talk with a physician about the impact of the Zika virus on a pregnancy.
Unfortunately, the states of Florida and Texas have rejected Medicaid expansion. Louisiana is the only Gulf Coast state to accept the Medicaid expansion after the Republican governor was succeeded by a Democrat. During times of crisis, such as the Zika public health emergency, we must put politics aside. The ACA Medicaid expansion needs to be implemented to ensure access to medical care for low-income adults with incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
The impact of a Zika infection on a baby could require care that costs a family and our health-care system anywhere between $1 million and $10 million over the lifetime of the child. But the true impact must be measured in more than dollars. A severe disability affects decisions that must be made by parents that will affect employment, income, future children and the lives of the children the parents may already have.
Such a catastrophe does not have to be in our future. We can save lives, protect babies, contain the spread of the Zika virus and save the taxpayers billions of dollars if the states in the region most at-risk would expand Medicaid. And Congress must immediately pass the president’s $1.9 billion request. We have a moral responsibility to work quickly. The time for action is long overdue.
Jackson Lee, a Democrat representing Houston in the U.S. House of Representatives, is a senior member of the House Committees on Homeland Security and the Judiciary. She is the ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. DeLauro, a Democrat representing New Haven, Conn. in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the ranking member of the powerful House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.