“We offset emergency spending.” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that on February 11 when asked about providing funding to combat the Zika virus. The insistence of finding cuts in federal spending to cover the cost of responding to an emergency is also being applied to the lead poisoning catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, in both House and Senate. This is not the usual approach: Congress is legally allowed to provide funds for emergencies without having to pay for urgently needed services. Negotiations in the Senate over funding to help Flint have produced a bill with a bipartisan list of 10 co-sponsors,* and it contains a cut to pay for the Flint relief. Yet its prospects are still uncertain.
The change in Flint’s water source in April of 2014, coupled with the failure to treat the water with a chemical to reduce readily predictable corrosion, has resulted in at least doubling the number of young children with elevated blood lead levels, compared to measurements before the water source switch. In poor areas such as Ward 5 in Flint, which experienced some of the highest lead contamination, the proportion of children with elevated blood level levels tripled, to almost 16 percent. With the toxicity of lead well known, especially in young children, the need for a comprehensive approach for Flint is urgent. In addition to replacement of water lines, thousands of children affected by lead poisoning need medical treatment, evaluations of their developmental progress, and potentially special education services. Adults have been affected by other contaminants in the water too, including outbreaks of Legionnaire’s Diseasetentatively attributed to the changed water source.
The bill, the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act (S. 2579), with lead sponsor Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), is co-sponsored by Senate Environment and Public Works Chair James Inhofe (R-OK). Pared back from an earlier $600 million amendment to the energy bill sponsored by both Michigan Senators, Stabenow and Peters, this new legislation would provide $242 million to assist with the repair of water infrastructure in Flint and other localities. The deal would call for this bill being acted upon separately, allowing the energy bill to move forward. However, despite S. 2579’s bipartisan co-sponsorship, it is not yet clear that it has the 60 votes needed to pass it in the Senate. Its fate in the House is also cloudy. Tell your Senators to vote for S. 2579, the Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act – and to insist that Senate leadership put it up for a vote NOW.
The Drinking Water Safety and Infrastructure Act will provide $100 million in subsidized loans and grants this year and next to any state that receives an emergency declaration resulting from a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the water supply. The bill also provides direct funding of $70 million to the Water Infrastructure and Innovation Fund, a loan fund expected to generate $700 million in financing for water infrastructure projects.
In addition to providing for infrastructure repairs, the bill includes $50 million to address the health impacts of this mass poisoning. Of that, $32.5 million is intended to lessen the short- and long-term effects of lead poisoning, including assistance to pregnant women and new mothers. The remaining $17.5 million would create a national registry to monitor the health effects of children exposed to lead.
The health provisions would work in tandem with an expected expansion of Medicaid in Michigan, through a waiver request submitted by Governor Rick Snyder to the federal government. The waiver request would expand Medicaid and CHIP to people up to age 21 and pregnant women with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line served by the Flint water system. Michigan has opted to expand access to Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but it charges premiums to eligible people with incomes between 160 – 212 percent of the federal poverty line. Under the waiver, no one affected by the Flint lead crisis would be subject to such charges. In addition, the request seeks Medicaid funding for the removal of lead hazards in buildings. It would include contamination from lead paint, another serious source of poisoning in children. The federal government has not yet responded to the waiver request, but is expected to do so soon.
The bill’s costs are paid for by rescinding a $250 million credit subsidy for new Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loans that would be issued after October 1, 2020. Some in Congress have questioned whether this is an appropriate offset, since it was originally passed on an emergency basis as aid to the Michigan auto industry and was not itself paid for. It is not yet known if this is a pervasive concern.
By making the funding available to other communities with lead contamination in their water supply, the bill addresses a demonstrable need, but if it is spread over multiple communities, the funding is more glaringly inadequate. Most observers believe that more funding is not achievable at this point in the Senate, although some hold out hope there will be more during the appropriations process. But if increases are included within the tight appropriations caps, more funding to address lead poisoning will mean cuts for other programs. Congress has a lot of catching up to do, after years of ignoring the hazards of lead. A Centers for Disease Control program for lead poisoning prevention was been cut nearly 56 percent since FY 2010; a HUD lead removal program was cut nearly 29 percent over the same period. (See the Coalition on Human Needs' table of human needs program funding, FYs 2010-2016).
*The bill’s co-sponsors: Stabenow (D-MI), Inhofe (R-OK), Peters (D-MI), Portman (R-OH), Brown (D-OH), Kirk (R-IL), Reed (D-RI), Burr (R-NC), Durbin (D-IL), and Boxer (D-CA).