We know firsthand: public health security is national security

Nearly two decades ago, Congress passed the All Hazards and Pandemic Preparedness Act (PAHPA) to protect our country and prepare for natural disasters and biological, chemical, and radiological threats. Since then, the provisions enacted in that legislation and subsequent reauthorizations have proven critical to strengthening our public health infrastructure and protecting our national health security.

With PAHPA reauthorized again this year, we applaud the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the House Committees on Energy and Commerce for beginning the critical work of ensuring that our nation’s preparedness programs are properly financed, sustained and improved.

PAHPA’s origins lie in our country’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the anthrax attacks that followed shortly thereafter. We’ve experienced these attacks intimately, as one of the full-time members targeted for anthrax in the mail (Daschle) and the Senate’s public spokesperson on anthrax and bioterrorism tasked with alleviating public fears (Frist).

Together, we work to build the legislative framework to respond to this new threat. In 2002, Congress passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, establishing the Office of Public Health Emergencies Preparedness, responsible for coordinating preparedness efforts for bioterrorism and other threats to public health. Today, these efforts are led by the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response.

Four years later, after Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed PAHPA to bolster our emergency preparedness and response capabilities, authorizing many of the federal government’s biodefense and pandemic preparedness programs, including the agency now known as the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response, the National Health Security Strategy and Advanced Biomedical Research and Development Authority. With bipartisan reauthorizations in 2013 and 2019, PAHPA established new programs to enhance our nation’s emergency response, including Project BioShield, and enacted measures to strengthen the Food and Drug Administration’s role in the development of medical countermeasures.

Since the inception of PAHPA and subsequent reauthorizations, both Republicans and Democrats have shown overwhelming support for strengthening our nation’s preparedness for the full range of natural and man-made threats and hazards. Protecting our nation’s health and well-being should not be a partisan issue, and we ask our leaders to continue that bipartisan tradition.

This year will mark the first time Congress has been tasked with reauthorizing PAHPA in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress must leverage the lessons we’ve learned over the past three years to enhance our nation’s preparedness capabilities before the next pandemic – as it’s not a matter of ifbut when, the next will occur. We ask Congress to avoid getting distracted by past partisan struggles or tangential political issues. Our nation’s preparedness is too important to be compromised, and these critical programs must not be overlooked.

Congress has taken significant steps to improve our public health preparedness during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the enactment of the bipartisan PREVENT Pandemics Act in last year’s collective appropriations package. Congress has repeatedly demonstrated that it recognizes the critical importance of strengthening our defenses against disasters and public health crises. However, there is still much to be done.

We urge Congress to seize this moment to bolster our national security and enhance our public health preparedness by reauthorizing the PAHPA before its expiration on October 1.

Former Senator Tom Daschle (DS.D.), co-founder of the Bipartisan Policy Center, served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and as Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003. Former Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), Senior Fellow from BPC, he is a doctor. He served in the Senate from 1995 to 2007 and as Senate Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007.

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