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Blunt Urges Support for Critical Health, Education & Workforce Funding Bill

Blunt: “This bill prioritizes programs that provide the most benefit and greatest return for all Americans”

November 13, 2020

WASHINGTON - Yesterday, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Mo.), Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor/HHS), spoke on the Senate floor to urge House Democrats to support the FY2021 Labor/HHS bill. The legislation includes critical funding for medical research, workforce development initiatives, public health and preparedness programs, child care, and more. In addition, the bill eliminates unnecessary spending and cracks down on waste, fraud, and abuse.

Following Are Blunt’s Remarks:

“I'm pleased to be here today, Madam President, to talk about the 2021 appropriations bill that we filed this week for Labor, for Health and Human Services, and for Education. Obviously, with what we've gone through this year, those three agencies have all experienced dramatic challenges, labor challenges, the health challenges, the education challenges. And while this bill would not specifically be a COVID relief bill, it's a bill that funds these agencies so they can move forward with their normal work, rather than have to, in some piecemeal way, try to deal with their normal work while they're trying to work with us on the extraordinary circumstances of a COVID bill.

“This is the largest bill, Labor, H[ealth], and Education is the largest non-defense bill on the discretionary side of the agenda. It's about 30% of all the money left when the defense appropriation is taken off the table. There are 11 bills left at that point, but this bill has about 30% of all the money. It has a lot of competing priorities, from apprenticeships to biomedical research to public health and preparedness programs to child care and special education, national service, community service are all in this bill. We received 8,352 requests from senators of things they'd like to see in the bill, and they're not all in there, but we did all we could to take the money we had and move forward with priorities that makes sense.

“I'm disappointed at this point that our Democratic colleagues on the Appropriations Committee were unable to support the bill right now. But we've worked together in the past, I hope we can continue to work together to find a way forward. And frankly, my view is if appropriations bills appear to have a path to the president's desk, that is the thing that brings us together most quickly. This bill continues in our sixth year of commitment to robustly and consistently funding medical research at the National Institutes of Health. We provided a $2 billion increase on that research, we target funding toward Alzheimer’s, toward precision medicine, premature birth research, the BRAIN Initiative.

“And in my time as chairman, we've actually increased NIH funding by 45% in budgets that often had virtually no increase at all. So we've truly had to work together to prioritize, we've done that. My time as chairman's about six years, if you're wondering how long it took us to get that 45% increase. But six years ago, we hadn't had any increase for 12 years. And NIH was about 22% behind in buying power, where they'd been a decade earlier. So we've made up that 22% and actually now putting real money on the table in an environment that's never been better, and never been more promising in the NIH research area. We continue our focus of combating opioids. Between 1999 and 2018, nearly 450,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdose.

“These drug overdose deaths in 2018 [were] four times higher than in 1999. The bill provides money to deal with this. We saw, with the effort we made in this area over the last several years, a consistent decrease in opioid overdoses until 2020. And, of course, the increase in 2020 in many ways related to the pandemic and the isolation, the support structure that appeared to be working to get you, move you from dependency no longer there, and suddenly you're back where you were.

“The bill provides a $20 million increase for apprenticeship programs. This week, I joined the Missouri Chamber of Commerce in highlighting the importance of apprenticeships. Last year, Missouri was the second in the nation in the number of new apprenticeships. First in the nation is California, and we're not a small state, but we're not nearly as big as California, so I think the leadership in our state of the business community, the employers, the governor, and others has made a real difference there. We fund both registered apprenticeship programs and allow for industry-recognized programs as well.

“Fourth, the bill invests in education from early childhood, through college and career. It increases funding for high quality child care education by $150 million and increases funding for elementary and secondary education programs that provide the most flexibility to school districts on how to best use those limited resources. This also includes increased investments in Title I. In IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Title IV, Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, charter schools, and Impact Aid. It increases the maximum Pell Grant by another $150, a 2.4% increase, at a time when the mandatory money is gone, so to find that 2.4% increase, we have to find that in other programs, and some programs just not able to fund it if they're not working, we shouldn't fund them. And we've seen several years of growth in areas where we have a priority like Pell Grants. And to do that, we had to look carefully at programs that, just frankly, weren't working.

“Fifth, we continue our focus on closing the care gap between mental health and physical health. Approximately one in five adults in America has a diagnosable and almost always treatable mental health problem. This bill provides money, an increase of almost $200 million, in the mental health area. I'd mention again the Excellence of Mental Health pilot. … We're seeing what happens in a positive way in people's other health issues when you deal with their mental health issue like it was any health issue, and it’s making a difference.

“This year was reinforced, again, by understanding the need to address disparities in foster care, greater diversity in health care education and the workforce. Many populations across the country, whether defined by race, ethnicity, geography, experience higher rates of certain diseases, and often lack access to health services. This bill tries to look at that in a way that analyzes where those gaps are, and has programs that encourage filling those gaps. Furthermore, the bill continues our efforts to ensure these disparities are addressed through a number of programs, including workforce development programs, diverse medical community efforts, research initiatives focused on underserved communities; programs that target health disparities and education workforce programs that create opportunity.

“So Madam President, this bill prioritizes programs that provide the most benefit and greatest return for all Americans. The bill continues key program integrity activities aimed at reducing waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars. These initiatives have proven to be a worthwhile investment, returning billions of dollars to the Treasury, and allowing us to look other places as to how we can fund that money in programs that work better and work more transparently. This bill eliminates eight programs equaling nearly $115 million in spending reductions by focusing on programs that are the most efficient and cost-effective with proven outcomes. We all know that budgets are tight, but making careful choices about health spending can be one of the most valuable investments we make, as a Congress and in the Congress.

“You don't have to look any further than the recent announcements about the record progress we've made finding a vaccine for COVID-19. Through the CARES Act and other legislation, Congress provided $18 billion for research into therapeutics and vaccines. $12.5 billion of those dollars went to vaccines, and did it in a way that's going to allow us to set a record in having a safe vaccine available that meets the highest standards. The vaccine that appears to be first in the line for approval is 90% effective. Now, I'm not an expert in vaccines, so my first thought would be well, I want a vaccine that's 100% effective. As it turns out, no vaccine’s 100% effective. The measles vaccine that school kids took for years, and most still take, is 90% effective.

“Health care experts nine months ago said if we could have a vaccine that was 50% effective, we should approve that vaccine and every other one that was at least 50% effective. We're looking at vaccines that are going to help us move beyond this, as we look at tests that help us move beyond this. But the fundamental foundation of all that is in the health care framework that we maintain. You can't look at a pandemic and say, now it's time to think about how we do important health research. You can't look at a pandemic and say, now it's time to think about how we think about having care providers in underserved areas. You can't look at a pandemic and say now it's time we begin to think about how you connect child care, and work, and school all together.

“This bill does as much of that as we could figure out how to do in the best way we could figure out how to do it. I hope the Congress can pass it. It would be a great gift to the next Congress and the administration after January 20, to be able to start next year with next year's work, rather than having to start next year with this year's work. Let's get this year's work done. Let's get it done now. And let's send a bill to the president that the House and Senate have agreed on and let's get back to looking at these bills in the right way at the right time. So with that, and Madam President I would yield the floor.”

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