The Trump Administration removed $10bn from a pot of money aimed to help hospitals and other healthcare providers endure the pandemic and put the money towards the Operation Warp Speed effort instead.
The Department of Health and Human Services seem to have made a money move that allowed them to spend taxpayer funds without notifying Congress, and got permission from the top lawyer at the health department to go ahead with the plan, STAT reported.
The Biden administration has not indicated whether this means that there will be less funding available for hospitals and other care facilities as the US enters what many hope is the home stretch of the pandemic.
The $10bn was set aside by Congress to help care providers pay for staffing, protective gear, care for the uninsured and distributing the vaccine.
Chip Kahn, CEO of the Federation of American Hospitals, told STAT: “Hospitals in need of the funding would be outraged to know that some of the money was siphoned off, even for important uses, because Congress was clear that this money was for providers and clinicians."
Russell Vought, who headed the Office of Management and Budget from January 2019 till the end of Donald Trump's term, defended the move to use the money to buy and develop vaccines and other Covid treatments.
He told STAT: “We had to draw from the Provider Relief Fund and had the authority to do so. It was the right thing to do in order to move as quickly as possible because lives were on the line. Thankfully we did. We would do it again."
Operation Warp Speed was started by the Trump administration and not by Congress, so they used money that was already available, but in the late summer of 2020, Operation Warp Speed was running out of money.
As officials wanted to keep pushing hard for vaccines and treatments, a pool of money created by Congress for hospitals and providers to the tune of $175bn looked increasingly attractive as coffers were emptying.
Politics was also part of the equation as the money was running out in the lead-up to the presidential election.
While Congress did give the Department of Health and Human Services the authority to move funds between accounts, they were supposed to let Congress know when they did so, something they didn't do. They also didn't request more funding for Operation Warp Speed. Trump Administration officials spent the money directly out of the Provider’s Relief Fund, avoiding the necessary notification process.
House Appropriations Committee Chair Democrat Rosa DeLauro told STAT: “It is unfortunate the Trump administration preferred to divert billions of dollars from the Provider Relief Fund instead of submitting a request to Congress for the necessary funds."
The Health Department's legal counsel resolved that some spending on Operation Warp Speed was appropriate. Mr Vought told STAT that the administration “made all the congressional notifications it was required to make".
The director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins told Axios last month that the Trump administration deserves credit for the "breathtaking" speed with which Covid vaccines were developed.
That vaccine development "got done in 11 months from when we first knew about this virus is at least five years faster than it's ever been before," Dr Collins said.
He added: "The Operation Warp Speed, for which I give a great deal of credit to [former Health Secretary Alex Azar], was an effort that many of us were not initially convinced was going to be necessary. And it was thought about as a Manhattan Project.
"Those words were used sometimes to describe what needed to happen in order to get all parts of the government together in an unprecedented way to test up to six vaccines in rigorous trials... so that if any of those trials happen to work, you would already have doses ready to go into arms."
The money moves made by the Trump administration exist in a legal grey area, STAT writes. While Covid regulation afforded some wiggle room to how money was spent, in other circumstances officials could have faced legal problems for spending money in ways they were not initially budgeted for.
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