The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden administration tells Congress that key coronavirus funds are dwindling

While top aides maintain they are equipped to deliver tests, vaccines and more related to omicron, they’ve raised new questions about preparedness for future waves

President Biden attends a covid-19 response team meeting at the White House on Jan. 13, 2022 with, from left, FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and covid-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients. On-screen are Maj. Katherine Kasch, Lt. Cmdr. Diana Tran-Yu and Lt. Col. Colonel Suzanne Cobleigh. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Nearly all of the money in a key federal program to boost coronavirus testing, therapeutics and vaccines appears to have been committed or already shelled out, raising the potential that the Biden administration may have to ask Congress to approve additional aid.

The dwindling funds reflect an uptick in spending as the White House in recent months has labored aggressively to battle back the rise of the omicron variant. While top officials say they are confident in their ability to weather the latest surge, they have started to explore whether more money might be needed to protect the public against any future variants.

“We will never let funding get in the way of our covid response, and remain in touch with Congress on resources needed to ensure we stay ahead of the virus and move toward the time when covid won’t disrupt our daily lives,” according to an official at the Office of Management and Budget.

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The issue is captured in documents that the Biden administration privately has shared with congressional lawmakers, which The Washington Post obtained on Thursday. Two people familiar with the documents confirmed their details, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe them.

In total, the figures focus on roughly $350 billion earmarked specifically at the Department of Health and Human Services since the start of the pandemic in 2020. That includes funding under President Donald Trump and the more recent provision of $80 billion as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Biden signed into law last spring.

By the Biden administration’s accounting, nearly all of the dollars in the HHS program, known as the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, have been allocated or obligated in some way, a budgetary term that essentially means the money is locked up in contracts or other formal commitments.

That includes more than $87 billion that had been set aside for testing and other mitigation measures earlier in the pandemic, for example, and roughly $178 billion authorized by Congress to shore up the finances of hospitals and other public health institutions, according to the data.

The Biden administration did not provide a more detailed accounting to Congress in each of the spending categories, including the specific recipients of some of the funds or how much time remains before the money is exhausted. An official stressed Thursday that the administration had the aid to address current needs and fulfill existing commitments, including Biden’s pledge to make 1 billion free tests available to Americans. But the official still confirmed that nearly all of the prior assistance under the critical HHS program had been slated for some use.

In recent days, top White House officials have appeared to echo some of those concerns publicly, suggesting that Congress may need to act in the days ahead to ensure the country is ready for a worst-case scenario.

“We have what we need in this current fight against omicron, and we’ve done a lot to prepare for what’s ahead,” White House coronavirus response chief Jeff Zients said at a news briefing with reporters on Wednesday. “We have boosters for all Americans, we’ve secured 20 million doses of the highly effective Pfizer pill. We’ve expanded supplies and stockpiles of PPE, including masks and gloves.”

But, Zients added, the country is “looking at a future where we will likely need funding for treatments and pills; we’ll need funding to continue to expand testing and to continue to lead the effort, as we’ve done with 1.2 billion doses donated to the world, but to continue to lead that effort to vaccinate the world.”

“So, we will be working with Congress as needed to make sure we have the funding to continue to fight this virus,” he said.

The uncertainty serves to highlight anew the difficulty facing lawmakers and watchdogs alike, as they have struggled to track more than $6 trillion in total emergency spending approved since the beginning of the public health crisis. The figures shared with Congress recently are far more timely and complete than the spending data available to the public, which in turn has made it difficult for experts to assess the country’s pandemic readiness.

“It’s not readily available or apparent,” warned Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s really important to understand if it’s enough … so that if there’s more needed the case can be made.”

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The data also adds new complexity to the ongoing, tense negotiations on Capitol Hill about the future of government funding broadly. That must-pass package could serve as a vehicle for another round of coronavirus-related relief, though lawmakers have not yet settled on an exact approach.

Democrats have laid the groundwork to pursue billions of dollars to enhance a global vaccine rollout as part of a longer-term spending package. Other party lawmakers have explored new programs that would target financially ailing families, including those who do not have access to paid family and medical leave. And still more have joined with Republicans in looking to augment the aid available to restaurants, gyms and other small businesses that have seen another disruption to their bottom lines.

But their efforts already have drawn scrutiny from Republicans, many of whom have felt the Biden administration should spend more wisely before lawmakers approve even more aid. Speaking on the chamber floor Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) explicitly called on the White House to reprogram existing money before returning to Congress to seek more.

“Let’s start the discussion by talking about repurposing the hundreds of billions already sitting in the pipeline,” McConnell said.