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Bipartisan House bill seeks to improve pandemic preparedness

A bipartisan pair of House lawmakers is introducing a bill aimed at improving U.S. pandemic and biodefense planning.

Specifically, the bill from Reps. Jason CrowJason CrowHuman Rights Campaign rolls out congressional endorsements on Equality Act anniversary Pentagon gets heat over protecting service members from coronavirus Here are the lawmakers who have self-quarantined as a precaution MORE (D-Colo.) and Elise StefanikElise Marie StefanikThe Hill’s Coronavirus Report: Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga says supporting small business single most important thing we should do now; Teva’s Brendan O’Grady says U.S. should stockpile strategic reserve in drugs like Strategic Oil Reserve House GOP to launch China probes beyond COVID-19 Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments MORE (R-N.Y.) seeks to improve communication and strengthen oversight of the National Biodefense Strategy, a document issued in 2018 that a recent investigation found faces hurdles in implementation.

The bill does not directly address the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, but Crow argued the crisis shows the need for the changes the legislation would make.

“I think one of the things we’ve seen very clearly in the last few months is that the government is not organized in a way that it needs to be to be agile and nimble and responding to a bio threat and a pandemic like this,” Crow said in an interview with The Hill.

“Too often, the agencies aren’t communicating and coordinating with each other, and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” he added.

The fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) required the secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Agriculture to develop a joint National Biodefense Strategy. The strategy was issued in 2018 and called for centralizing federal responses to naturally occurring, accidental or deliberate biological threats.

The Trump administration created a Biodefense Steering Committee and a Biodefense Coordination Team to oversee implementation of the strategy. But a February report from the Government Accountability Office found several challenges to implementation, including that there are “no clear, detailed processes, roles and responsibilities for joint decision-making.”

To address those issues, Crow and Stefanik’s bill would require the Health and Human Services secretary to clarify the strategy and implementation plan, including by reporting to Congress on possible implementation strategies to improve information-sharing activities on biosurveillance data.

The bill would also require the secretary to enter into a memorandum of understanding to describe roles and responsibilities for different federal departments and agencies and otherwise clarify roles, responsibilities and processes for decisionmaking across agency boundaries, among other requirements.

“The government was not ready at almost every level,” Crow said of the coronavirus response, including Congress in that category. “We have to be doing a full comprehensive evaluation of what we can do better because there are many things I think we’ve learned that we need to be doing better. And this is one of those efforts — better communication, better collaboration — so that we can actually have a whole of government response is really necessary.”

Crow, noting the congressional calendar remains fluid during the pandemic, said discussions are ongoing about a vehicle for passing the bill, including whether to attach it to this year’s NDAA.

“I don’t imagine that it will be controversial,” Crow said of the bill. “It’s not a political issue. This is just a good government measure that I think we can rally people behind. It’s proactive, it’s positive, it’s a way that we can improve things.”

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