September 26, 2017

By Mike Amery, Esq., Senior Legislative Counsel, Federal Affairs

AAN Leads on Zika Funding Request to Congress 

The AAN has been working to inform Academy members, the public, and Congress on the Zika virus since the outbreak was first reported. On the congressional front, it appears that Congress likely will pass a $1.1 billion funding plan to combat Zika this week.

Congress must pass a short-term continuing resolution to ensure that the government won't shut down on September 30. The deal currently on the table would fund the government until December 9, 2016. Assuming it passes both the House and Senate, both sides of Capitol Hill will adjourn, but Congress will have to return in a “lame duck” session after the elections to pass funding into 2017.

The continuing resolution maintains current spending levels for most government agencies as well as the addition of funding for the fight against Zika.

The AAN has played a significant part in ensuring that the final package included the Zika provision. With the potential neurologic implications of the virus, the AAN made congressional action a top priority. In DC, we have been talking with members of Congress about the crisis for several months. Most recently, the AAN sent a letter to congressional leadership and followed that with AAN members contacting their members of Congress by email at the request of an AAN action alert.

Most of the action has occurred in the Senate, where negotiators have had to come to agreement on Zika funding that would reach a 60-vote super majority. On the weekend of September 17-18, I attended a retreat for the National Republican Senate Committee in Georgia. I brought the issue up with several key senators, including Majority Whip John Cornyn (TX); Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, MD, one of the three physicians in the Senate; and both Georgia Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson. Derek Brandt of the AAN's DC staff attended a similar event last Tuesday on the Democratic side and discussed Zika with several senators, including Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), one of the key budget negotiators, as well as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana and Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

The Academy's efforts continued with AAN members Janice F. Wiesman, MD, FAAN, of New York and Bruce H. Cohen, MD, FAAN, of Ohio meeting with their senate offices in DC to discuss the importance just before the final vote.

Drs. Wiesman and Cohen also urged action from their House members.  A remarkable highlight was an event where Dr. Cohen met House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and took the opportunity to discuss Zika issues with her. Moments later, as Pelosi addressed a crowd of more than 100, she spontaneously called upon Dr. Cohen and asked him to describe for the attendees some of the neurologic consequences of Zika. We caught pictures of this which can be seen on the AAN Facebook page.  

I asked Drs. Wiesman and Cohen what they thought after a full day on Capitol Hill. Dr. Wiesman commented, “Everyone seems to understand the importance of the Zika crisis, even if their constituents aren't being impacted yet. I'm pleased to say that both Democrats and Republicans can and will agree on this.” Dr. Cohen added, “As a child neurologist, I was impressed with how concerned members of Congress are about Zika and I think they will get something passed this week. I am happy we could be a part of it.” 

Two other members key to our Zika effort have been Ann H. Tilton, MD, FAAN, who serves on the AAN Board of Directors and BrainPAC Executive Committee,  and Pushpa Narayanaswami, MBBS, MD, FAAN, vice-chair of the AAN Government Affairs Committee.

Dr. Tilton, a child neurologist in New Orleans, made news on August 31 when interviewed by USA Today on Zika. In the article “Medical specialists needed to care for Zika babies are in short supply,” Dr. Tilton said, “These children are going to need an incredible amount of care.” The article went on to cite a 2013 AAN study detailing the shortages of neurologists. Dr. Tilton will be helping her state with Zika as a clinical reviewer for the Louisiana Department of Health.  

The AAN has been contacted by several members of Congress for input on the Zika crisis and at least one of these contacts led to legislation being introduced. In early September, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), a member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, asked for our help drafting legislation to create a Zika registry. Dr. Narayanaswami worked with his staff to draft HR 6010, the Zika Pregnancy and Infant Registry Act of 2016. This legislation would authorize the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to establish a registry program for pregnant women and will track infants up to age five so that researchers can get a better understanding of the impact of the virus. 

HR 6010 won't pass before the end of the 114th Congress, but the Zika virus won't stop either. We will work with Rep. Bilirakis as he reintroduces HR 6010 in the 115th Congress in January, and with anyone else willing to take steps to prevent the spread of the Zika.

Meet Your Members of Congress During Neurology on the Hill 2017

The AAN's 15th annual Neurology on the Hill will take place February 27-28, 2017, in Washington. This is your chance to get up on Capitol Hill to meet your members of Congress and advocate for your patients and your practice. You also can establish crucial relationships with lawmakers that may be helpful on other issues impacting neurology in the months and years to come. The application is now open until November 20, 2016.