Lawmakers and public health groups on Thursday urged the Trump administration to commit more resources to the health needs of the immigrant children who have been separated from their families at the border.
Even as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited the Texas-Mexico border with first lady Melania Trump, questions remained about whether the department has adequate funding to handle the situation and how much more might be needed.
Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Appropriations subcommittee that funds HHS, said she was troubled by the lack of information from the administration about the children in its care. She also suggested that the border situation was reaching crisis levels that might require Congress to provide more funding.
“HHS has also failed to provide estimates of additional funding that will likely be needed to provide adequate care for the children in its custody,” Murray said in a letter to Azar.
The HHS division that handles the migrant children, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, was funded at approximately $1.86 billion for fiscal 2018. For fiscal 2019, the House Appropriations Committee proposed the same amount. Committee members, particularly Democrats, are almost certainly going to ask for more to be included when the panel marks up the broader Labor-HHS-Education spending bill next Tuesday.
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Emily Holubowich, executive director of the Coalition for Health Funding, an umbrella organization of other health groups, said in a statement that the likely health impact was clear, but “what remains unclear is what lawmakers are going to do about it.”
She said the fiscal 2018 omnibus spending law enacted in March “did not budget for the consequences of the administration’s new separation policy.”
While she acknowledged HHS had the authority to transfer funding, and has in the past to address similar crises, she argued that this would be “undercutting other critical public health programs that are already underfunded after years of austerity — the same programs that will be called upon to support these migrant families in their recovery.”
Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, noted that there was a lot the administration could be doing now with or without additional funding. He said federal officials could start by sending members of the U.S. Public Health Services Corps to HHS facilities and taking steps to allow doctors in private practice to volunteer their services.
“The system is there to do it. They just have to call on those people,” Benjamin said, noting that it can be a challenge for health providers to offer their services across state lines. But the administration has the power to make that easier for them, for example, by declaring a public health emergency.
“If they’re serious about this, they can treat this like the environmental and public policy crisis that it is, and activate the resources,” he said.
Numerous health groups in recent days have drawn attention to the adverse health effects of separating children from their families, particularly the potential for mental health trauma.
Benjamin spoke at a press conference organized by Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz of California, who said hundreds of his constituents had asked him how they might help.
“I think the president can do a lot of things to stop this tragedy,” Ruiz said, including allowing volunteers to attend to the children’s health and emotional wellbeing. “It would be a very important and effective way to address the immediate needs.”