It remains the case that the richest country on earth—which spends billions on war—acts like it can’t afford to take care of its own.
Today, President Joe Biden signed a $1.5 trillion government spending bill that includes an additional $13.6 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine and exactly zero dollars for covid testing and treatment. The White House initially asked for $22.5 billion in pandemic funding, but the amount was shrunk to $15.6 billion before being dropped from the package entirely over disagreements on how to pay for it.
Does that mean we lack the money for these important pandemic measures? Exactly the opposite: Democrats chose to spend it somewhere else. As the New York Times reports, “Republicans claimed credit for prodding Democrats to accept a $42 billion increase in military spending, bringing the total this year to $782 billion.” And: “Lawmakers more than doubled what the Biden administration requested in emergency aid for Ukraine.”
The White House is now warning that, without new funding, it will soon have to stop covering covid testing, treatment, and vaccination for the millions of Americans who don’t have health insurance, and that it may not be able to buy more vaccine doses. It said it will also need to halt purchases of oral antiviral treatments like Paxlovid and end federal funding for monoclonal antibody treatments—which thus far have been free—because it has run out of money for these programs. The administration would also need to limit its efforts to help people in lower-income countries get vaccinated.
The number of people without health insurance who qualify for free covid treatment is actually lower than usual thanks to a pandemic declaration that prevents states from removing people from the Medicaid program right now. But when the federal health emergency ends, as many as 16 million people, including millions of children, are set to lose that coverage.
Democrats now plan to introduce “a standalone COVID funding bill, which is expected to pass the House but is unlikely to clear the Senate,” as NPR reports. President Biden tweeted that he wants the full $22.5 billion.
Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) wondered aloud whether more money for covid is even necessary: “The question is do we need it? Number one. We don’t know that.” Well, Dick, would you like to limit the spread to prevent more vaccine-evading variants from developing? Would you like Americans’ life expectancy to actually increase sometime in the next few years? Would you like more people to feel comfortable enough to eat at restaurants and take vacations?
This absurd funding fight wouldn’t be happening if the U.S. finally joined the rest of the developed world in providing healthcare to all its residents. But instead we live in a country where discussions about budget bills are conducted with the assumption that defense spending will either stay the same or increase—nothing else.