Flu prompts review of funding for drugs

Posted April 28, 2009, at 8:34 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Last Friday the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee reduced proposed spending for anti-viral drugs in the state budget from $2,175,000 to $500,000. On Tuesday, with fears of a pandemic flu outbreak, they decided to put the issue on hold.

“We are going to have to reconsider that,” said Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, co-chairman of the panel. “We have to be ready, despite the financial problems we are facing now.”

He said the panel voted to reduce funding for the initiative based on what it knew Friday. He said the state is clearly facing a huge budget hole of more than $570 million and the committee is searching for every dollar it can find.

“You couldn’t make this up in terms of the worst timing in the world,” he said. “But we will do what we need to do on this.”

Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford, the lead GOP member of the committee, agreed. He said the committee is unified in agreeing the issue must be left open for further consideration.

“We have voted in a million dollars, $500,000 in each year for these drugs,” he said, “We will not compromise public health in any manner. We do need to know, as soon as possible, what we need to do.”

Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, co-chairwoman of the panel, said the panel will increase funding for the anti-viral drugs if Maine Center for Disease Control director Dr. Dora Anne Mills says the state should stockpile more of the medication.

“We need to know from her what is needed and when it is needed, “she said. “We are not going to jeopardize public health.”

Mills told the panel she had agreed with the proposal to reduce her initiative of buying the anti-viral drugs at the reduced federal rate. She told lawmakers she could not definitely answer their questions on whether more drugs will be needed.

“The bad news is we have a potential pandemic unfolding before our eyes,” she said. “The good news is that it is unfolding so quickly that in a few days we will be able make a much more informed choice.

“The situation is changing every day. We are getting guidance updates from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] all the time,” she said.

For example, she said, just before meeting with lawmakers, she had received new recommendations on handling cases involving schools. She said the CDC is now recommending the closing of schools where a confirmed case of swine flu is identified.

Mills said a vaccine for the new strain of flu, formally named swine influenza A (H1N1) by the federal CDC, is being developed, but it will be months before any supplies are available.

Mills said only a vaccine will provide protection from the flu, and while the anti-viral drugs will help moderate the severity of the flu, they will not kill the virus. She said the state will soon receive its share of federal emergency supplies which includes enough anti-viral drugs to cover 35,000 to 40,000 people.

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