The Obama administration has employed a variety of tactics to frighten the public about the possible consequences of sequestration. Air-traffic control towers will be shuttered. Children will be thrown off Head Start. The nation’s guard against terrorism will be lowered.
Republicans, and in some cases the press, have poked some pretty big holes in some of the administration’s most extravagant claims. But no one has done a better job than a little-known GOP congressman, Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who took on officials from the Centers for Disease Control at a House hearing last week.
The occasion was a meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. In questions directed toward Tom Frieden, who is director of the Centers for Disease Control, Harris brought up a White House estimate of the number of children in Maryland who would go without vaccinations if sequestration went into effect. The document said clearly: “2,050 fewer children will get vaccines for diseases like measles and whooping cough.”
It was a serious charge, one that could result in suffering and death; the cuts would apparently devastate something known as the 317 vaccination program. From the CDC website:
Section 317 of the Public Health Service Act authorizes the federal purchase of vaccines to vaccinate children, adolescents, and adults. Over its 50 year history, Section 317-purchased vaccine has been directed towards meeting the needs of priority populations; most recently this has included underinsured children not eligible for [the separate Vaccines for Children program], and uninsured adults.
But committee staff had looked into President Obama’s plans for the 317 program long before the sequester ever took effect. And what they discovered was that the president, in his 2013 budget, had proposed to cut $58 million from the program. The administration claimed that the money could be saved through greater efficiencies and would not involve any reductions in vaccinations. (The proposed cuts never took place.) What stunned Rep. Harris and others was that after claiming in the 2013 budget last year that $58 million could be cut without harming vaccinations, the CDC this year claimed that sequestration cuts to the same program, estimated at $30 million, would have devastating effects. So Harris — who is also a medical doctor — brought the subject up in questioning CDC director Frieden:
HARRIS: Dr. Frieden, I have a great deal of concern about a document that my office got from the White House that talked about the cuts that were going to occur due to Republicans and affecting children. And I’m going to read their quote about vaccines for children. It says, in Maryland, about 2,050 fewer children will receive vaccines due to reduced funding for vaccinations of about $140,000. Did the CDC assist the White House in preparing that estimate?
FRIEDEN: I would have to get back to you on that.
HARRIS: You as the director don’t know if you assisted the White House in preparing an estimate that was distributed to every member of Congress?
FRIEDEN: On that specific number, I would have to — to give you…
HARRIS: OK, let’s — let’s forget the number. Let’s forget the idea of how vaccines for children are going to be affected by the sequester. Is this the vaccine for children program?
FRIEDEN: No, it is not, sir.
HARRIS: Which program is it? Is it 317?
FRIEDEN: Yes, it is, sir.
HARRIS: And what did the president’s budget do to 317, the president’s prospective budget for 2013?
FRIEDEN: The precise numbers I would have to get back to you.
HARRIS: Does $58 million cut sound familiar?
HARRIS: And what was the sequester cut?
FRIEDEN: Again, the precise numbers…
HARRIS: Does $30 million sound familiar?
FRIEDEN: I would…
HARRIS: You think that’s around ballpark, isn’t it? So actually, the president cut the program twice as much in his budget. Can I assume that the president’s proposed cut would have reduced funding to 4,100 children in Maryland?
FRIEDEN: As per the justification that was published with that, we’ve looked at ways that we can run the program more efficiently by helping state and local health departments recoup dollars, for example, for insured patients.
HARRIS: And you can’t do that under a sequester, but you can do it under the president’s budget? Is that my understanding of your testimony today?
FRIEDEN: I would have to get back to you on that.
HARRIS: So let me get it — let me get it straight. Under the president’s cut of $58 million to the 317 program, you think you could get around that to avoid cutting vaccines to children, but under a sequester, that the president blames on Republicans, you don’t know if you can do that?
FRIEDEN: We’re going to do everything we can to limit any damage that occurs because of the across-the-board cut, but it reduces our flexibility significantly.
HARRIS: Is it your testimony that under the president’s proposed cut of $58 million in his budget to the 317 program you could have avoided cuts to vaccines to children in Maryland?
FRIEDEN: We believe that we could have maintained vaccination levels, yes.
HARRIS: Very interesting. I yield back the balance of my time for now.
Harris later learned that the claimed $30 million sequester cut was a high estimate; the actual number for sequestration cuts at CDC will be about $18 million, which should make the cuts even easier to work around. (You can watch video of the Harris-Frieden exchange here.)
“I just found it remarkable that under the president’s cuts they could vaccinate everyone, but under the cuts blamed on Republicans they couldn’t,” Harris said in an interview Tuesday. “When they want to do with less, they can find a way. But when they don’t want to find a way to do with less, they claim they can’t do things in a budget-restricted environment.”
Harris has sent the CDC a list of follow-up questions. But he believes the Centers never really intended to deny children vaccinations — only to try to scare Congress into ending sequestration. “They’ve been caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” Harris said. “I suspect that they would have vaccinated everybody normally. I think there is going to be no decrease in childhood vaccinations from the sequester.”
In the end, though, the vaccination episode is one of the most revealing of the whole sequestration fight. Is this how the Obama administration has operated from agency to agency, across the whole government? “There is a part of me that wishes this weren’t just the tip of the iceberg, but I think it is,” said Harris. “I think this is just one case where they got caught embellishing the effects of sequestration.”