Democrats propose funds to ease formula shortage as children are hospitalized
The new emergency spending measure aims to inject more funds into the Food and Drug Administration, a move that Democrats say would ease the supply shortage while protecting against future disruptions. House leaders have set in motion a plan to pass the bill this week, when they hope to finalize a separate but related effort to help low-income families.
Addressing the potential crisis at a press conference on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other senior Democrats promised a battery of additional actions on the horizon — including hearings to question senior formula industry leaders and new scrutiny targeting the FDA.
“Parents are in trouble. Today, people live paycheck to paycheck. They are now scrambling to find formulas for their babies,” warned Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee and lead author of the proposal.
The shortage of infant formula in the United States worries parents. Here’s what you need to know.
But it was unclear whether the new money — largely earmarked for more federal inspections — could provide immediate relief to formula-strapped families across the country. Much of the shortage stems from the closure of a major production plant in Sturgis, Michigan, due to concerns about unsanitary conditions and four infants falling ill or dying after consuming the company’s formula. The process of restarting its operations is expected to take weeks.
The political fate of the Democrats’ latest legislative ploy was even less certain, as Republicans signaled early opposition to the spending measure, which could hurt its prospects in a tightly divided Senate. A senior aide to House GOP leaders, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the party’s thinking, said there was reluctance to support any new federal spending. Meanwhile, GOP lawmakers continued to publicly hammer the White House for not anticipating the shortage.
“Who would have ever thought that we would have a shortage of formula milk here in the United States?” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said at a news conference Tuesday. “These are things that could have been foreseen, things that the Biden administration could have foreseen.”
Tensions surfaced in the House Rules Committee as it met on Tuesday afternoon to set the parameters for debate on the bill. While DeLauro pointed to “corporate greed” and a “shameful lack of oversight” as the root causes of the formula crisis, his Republican counterparts criticized Democrats for mounting an ineffective policy response.
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“Unfortunately, the bill that the majority is now producing will do nothing to address this crisis, and will do nothing to provide support for parents and provide them with the formula their babies need,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla .), the highest Republican. on the panel, before adding that the bill is an attempt by Democrats to “look like they were doing something about this crisis without doing anything.”
For all their divisions, Democrats and Republicans have at least found themselves united in bipartisan frustration, having now heard a listening ear from voters back home. On Tuesday, lawmakers swapped a new set of stories about parents driving miles to scour stores for infant formula, only to find nothing to sell. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said he visited a local grocer and was “awed by the bareness of the shelves.”
In Memphis, meanwhile, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital admitted a toddler and a preschooler in cases “directly related to formula shortages,” said Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist. One of them has since been acquitted. These children have special dietary needs and their parents were unable to find an appropriate formula for them, Corkins said.
The shortage prompted the Biden administration to intervene, including announcing on Monday that the FDA had reached an agreement with Abbott Nutrition, the owner of the shuttered Sturgis plant, to restart operations. The company previously said it would take two weeks after FDA approval to resume production of Similac and other popular baby formulas, and another six to eight weeks to get it to stores nationwide. national.
The FDA has also had discussions with other infant formula manufacturers, who report that they are all producing at increased capacity. Gerber said it increased the amount of its infant formula available to consumers by about 50% in March and April, for example, and Reckitt is supplying more than 30% more product year-to-date. Early indicators from data firm IRI show recent improvements: In the week ending May 6, the most recent data available, the nationwide average grocery store was back at 79% stocked, although experts say there is a significant regional difference. That’s up from the 57% stockpiled, an all-time high, at the start of the month.
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In recent days, senior White House officials have signaled that they may soon take additional action, including invoking the Defense Production Act. The federal law essentially grants President Biden the power to order domestic manufacturers to ramp up production, a tool the federal government previously used to secure supplies in response to the coronavirus. Lawmakers from both parties supported the move, though Pelosi expressed concern over the weekend that Biden may not have the power to use the law in the context of infant formula.
Even so, such a presidential directive could take time to implement, especially given the complicated manufacturing process required to produce a nutrient-dense formula. And his consideration did nothing to quell widespread anger that the White House should have acted more aggressively, and sooner, to prevent a supply shortage – especially amid reports that a whistleblower had already sounded the alarm about the Sturgis plant.
For now, congressional Democrats are still concocting their own set of legislative responses. For starters, the House is expected to consider a bill on Thursday that could give Americans in a low-income program known as WIC easier access to more sources of formula. The move will allow the Women, Infants and Children program, which is run by the Department of Agriculture, to begin purchasing infant formula from more foreign sources.
With that, the Democrats aim to advance their measure by injecting $28 million in new funds into the FDA. The money, according to DeLauro, would “strengthen the formula-focused workforce and increase FDA inspection staff,” while ensuring that fraudulent and unsafe products do not enter the U.S. market. .
Touting the measure, DeLauro stepped up his attacks on Abbott on Tuesday, arguing during a House hearing that the incidents at the Sturgis plant are evidence of his strategy to “put production and profits before people.” . And she criticized the FDA for “dragging its feet” since last year over known abuses at the Abbott-run facility.
“Our job here is not done,” DeLauro promised.
Hours later, DeLauro joined Pelosi, Hoyer and other Democratic leaders in detailing some of their future priorities, including a new investigation they had secured from a key federal inspector general. Speaking at the new conference, they vented their anger against Abbott and the infant formula industry in general. At one point, Pelosi herself predicted that the sum of the government’s investigative efforts could uncover significant wrongdoing in the months to come.
“I think there might be a need for a charge,” Pelosi said.
Other Democrats said they would explore legislation requiring FDA “authorities” to monitor manufacturers for potential shortages before they occur. “Right now, we don’t really have an immediate or quick way to know if there’s a shortage,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (DN.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, adding that they are considering “legislation that says they have to inform us”.
US infant formula shortage leaves parents scrambling
So far, Republicans have signaled they are not inclined to support new funds for the FDA. While acknowledging the impact of the shortage – in addition to a broader spike in consumer prices across the economy – party lawmakers have said they find the money unnecessary given the partial failures of the FDA.
Rep. Kay Granger (Texas), the top GOP lawmaker on the House Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers have already increased the agency’s budget and the bill fails to impose demands more specific to the Biden administration.
“What’s most worrying,” she said, “is that this bill won’t solve the problem.”