Perhaps no one is more frustrated with Congress’s inaction on emergency Zika funding than Cindy Pellegrini.
Pellegrini oversees lobbying at the March of Dimes, the nonprofit working to improve maternal and infant health. Since March, Pellegrini has been leading the charge on Capitol Hill to pass legislation funding research, vaccine development and other measures to combat the Zika virus, which causes severe brain defects in babies whose mothers are infected while pregnant.
But her efforts have hit a wall.
Congress left town for August recess without approving a Zika package, and Pellegrini says talks with staff for the leadership in both parties are stuck because they are reluctant to negotiate while lawmakers are away. Meanwhile, the first locally-transmitted cases of Zika in the continental U.S. were reported in South Florida late last month.
One of the biggest obstacles blocking passage of a Zika measure is the provision requiring such funding be used only for public health departments and hospitals — excluding providers such as Planned Parenthood, which is routinely attacked by Republicans because some of their centers perform abortions.
As the fight intensified, Pellegrini became the de facto face of the Zika funding campaign in Washington largely by necessity. Back in February, after the White House sent its request to Congress for $1.9 billion in emergency funding, many public health groups voiced support for the proposal. But no clear leader emerged to organize the advocacy campaign.
“After a couple weeks, it became obvious [the supplemental request] just sort of landed with a thud,” Pellegrini said last week from March of Dimes’ office on K Street, before heading to the Hill for meetings with leadership staff.
“No one was even talking about it … I sat down with our federal team and said, ‘This is a problem. Evidently Congress is going to ignore Zika. Somebody needs to do something about that. And I’m thinking that somebody is us.'”
March of Dimes’ in-house lobbying team, led by Pellegrini and federal director Jaimie Vickery, began recruiting allies from the public health sector to sign letters urging Congress to act on Zika. The coalition now includes more than 50 public health groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Easterseals, and National Association of County and City Health Officials. Pellegrini estimates that coalition leaders have had about 100 meetings with congressional staffers to push for Zika funding since last spring.
The coalition is not lobbying for a specific dollar amount, but is urging lawmakers not to divert funding to Zika meant to deal with Ebola and other public health emergencies.
In late June, Congress failed to pass a bill that would have provided $1.1 billion to fight Zika. That bill would have been partially paid for by $750 million in savings, including $107 million from Ebola programs.
The coalition is continuing to pressure lawmakers throughout the August recess, organizing a “Zika Fact of the Day” campaign that sends an email blast to every lawmaker’s office every business day in August. One was timed to go out Friday, the day of the opening ceremony for the Olympics in Brazil, where thousands of cases of microcephaly — a Zika-linked birth defect that results in abnormally small heads in babies — have been reported.
March of Dimes has not hired outside consultants and or received additional internal funding for the efforts, Pellegrini said. However, the group last month got a $250,000 donation from KMart, the organization’s longtime top corporate contributor, specifically to aid Zika advocacy efforts.
“We’ve got this amazing coalition of groups and nobody’s got a lot of resources,” Pellegrini said. “We’re making stone soup.”
Pellegrini cut her teeth in health care policy working on the Hill for 11 years, including eight in the office of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.).
There, she spent the bulk of her time helping draft parts of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). The landmark 2008 federal law prohibits health insurers and employers from discriminating against people based on genetic information, such as a predisposition to developing certain diseases.
Slaughter introduced the bill in 1995 and, after more than a decade of negotiations among patient advocacy groups, providers, insurers, pharmaceutical and biotech firms, it passed in 2008 — two years after Pellegrini had already left to become a lobbyist at the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“GINA was the product of many diverse actors coming to the table with their concerns and having constructive negotiations,” she said.
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re not seeing on Zika now. People have staked out their positions and have decided it’s in their best interest not to move from them … We’re going to keep going back to Congress and saying, ‘You have to act on this. you have to fix this.'”