Biden to Shift Covid Funds to Cover Costs for Kids at Border

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services plans to reallocate $860 million of funds appropriated to the National Institutes of Health to cover an increase in pandemic-related costs associated with unaccompanied children at the border.

Health Secretary Xavier Becerra notified members of Congress on Tuesday that the department would reallocate the funds to cover increased costs in ensuring the safety of children arriving at the Southwest border, as well as staff attending to them at shelters, according to a letter seen by Bloomberg News.

A Biden administration official said that the need for pandemic-related precautions, such as testing and quarantining, has added at least $1.7 billion in costs to the program.

The U.S. has seen Covid-19 infections plateau in recent weeks as the more contagious delta variant becomes the dominant strain of the coronavirus circulating in the country. At the same time, the country’s vaccination effort has slowed, and is now averaging fewer than 1 million shots administered a day. Nearly half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker.

In a letter to House and Senate appropriations leadership, Becerra said that the pandemic has increased the program’s operating costs, requiring that children be quarantined and that emergency intake shelters have proper social-distancing measures in place to keep children and staff safe.

Meeting this demand, Becerra said in the letter, has substantially reduced the number of state-licensed shelter beds. The U.S. must deploy influx and emergency intake shelters as quickly as possible, he said.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, and Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, lead the relevant appropriations subcommittee in the House, and Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, and Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, head the parallel panel in the Senate.

Spokespersons for the lawmakers didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Becerra said the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021 grants him the authority to divert the funds, and that HHS will ensure the transfer “does not disrupt or impede planned NIH activities.” The White House Office of Management and Budget was consulted on the transfer, according to the letter.

The administration official said the reallocation process isn’t unusual, and that the unaccompanied children program had been relying on transferred and supplemental funding before President Joe Biden assumed office. The Trump administration requested and received nearly $3 billion in supplemental funding from Congress for the unaccompanied children program in 2019, they said.

“Funding the program is always a challenge because it depends on how many children arrive in a year, and people never know what number that will be when they’re determining an appropriation,” said Mark Greenberg, a former Obama administration official who served as the acting assistant secretary of HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, which oversees the unaccompanied children program. “When more money is need, the two paths forward are either transfers or supplemental appropriations.”

The Biden administration has asked Congress to make what the official described as long-needed changes to decrease the program’s reliance on funding transfers and reduce the time it takes to unify children with families.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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