Aid from Congress isn’t coming

WASHINGTON — Southern Nevada health officials may face a financial squeeze after Congress failed to come through with $5 million to defray costs of responding to the hepatitis C health crisis in Las Vegas, officials said Friday.

Money that had been earmarked for the Southern Nevada Health District was stripped from an emergency spending bill before federal lawmakers completed their work on Thursday and sent the bill to the White House.

Also jettisoned was $21 million inserted by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., for outbreak prevention strategies at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A portion of the CDC money would have been budgeted in Las Vegas, where authorities continue to investigate clinics affiliated with the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

Health investigators said patients could have been exposed to hepatitis strains or the HIV virus through unsafe practices such as the reuse of syringes and anesthesia vials that were documented at the clinics.

More than 50,000 patients were advised to take blood tests for the diseases, including a number of uninsured or underinsured people whose tests were being conducted at community clinics.

“It would have been very helpful if we did receive the funding, not so much from the perspective of the health district but from the perspective of the public that would have been affected and had their needs met,” health district spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore said Friday.

“What that means is we will have to meet those needs through community resources that are already in place, which are pretty tapped at this point,” she said.

“We understood going in that it would be difficult to get the money included in that bill,” Sizemore said.

In the meantime, the Southern Nevada Health District has redirected funds from other grants and accessed other sources including fines that were levied against the owners of the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, Sizemore said.

Democrats said they encountered tough resistance from the Bush administration, which had insisted that the emergency bill be limited to $162 billion for continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and selected foreign assistance.

Over the past several weeks, House Democratic leaders and the White House reached agreement to add $21 billion for domestic programs.

Money was included to improve veterans benefits, extend jobless benefits by 13 weeks, repair Midwest communities hit by floods and rebuild levees damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

But another $10 billion worth of domestic spending was discarded, including money to help poor families pay heating and cooling bills, and community grants for law enforcement. The Nevada funding was in that category.

“Getting anything through this White House is enormously difficult,” Reid said in a statement Friday. “The hepatitis C scare in Southern Nevada is a serious issue I will continue to work to address in Congress.”

Reid said he has initiated Plan B. He said he has placed money for the hepatitis C investigation in a separate Department of Health and Human Services spending bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved this week and that may be completed later in the year.

A Reid aide said that bill contains $550,000 for the Southern Nevada Health District, and $5 million for the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.

Separately, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said he has been trying to persuade the Department of Health and Human Services to reprogram unspent funds in other programs towards Las Vegas. He has not reported progress on that effort.

Of the health district’s $5 million request to Congress, $3 million was to be spent on blood tests on 15,000 uninsured and underinsured patients, and $1.3 million for followup tests on persons found positive for HIV or hepatitis strains.

Sizemore said much of the federal funding would have been forwarded to community clinics operated by Nevada Health Centers, a nonprofit that has been offering blood tests to patients.

Sizemore said she did not know how the funding situation was affecting ongoing testing. Officials at the Carson City-based Nevada Health Centers had no immediate comment on Friday.

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