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While it’s highly unlikely that Ebola will make it to the United States, the pandemic has wormed its way into one of the most contentious U.S. Senate races -- in Arkansas.
Despite the fears of many Americans, experts on infectious diseases -- including the Centers for Disease Control -- say there is a very, very low likelihood that the United States would experience an Ebola outbreak. Compared to west Africa, America has well-resourced health care services, as well as federal programs and agencies dedicated to preventing public health crises in the United States.
But that’s no thanks to Rep. Tom Cotton, says incumbent Democrat Sen. Mark Pryor in his most recent ad. Pryor’s running against Cotton, a Republican, to keep his seat.
"Tom Cotton voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola," the ad’s narrator says. "Congressman Cotton voted to cut billions from our nation’s medical disaster and emergency programs. He was the only Arkansas congressman to vote this way. Just like he was the only one to vote against Children’s Hospital. Instead, Cotton voted massive tax cuts for billionaires. Not protect our families’ health and safety."
As a tea party Republican, Cotton has a history of voting against federal government spending, including spending on disaster relief. But tying Cotton to a potential Ebola outbreak caught our attention.
This year, Ebola has killed more than 1,400 people in west Africa as of Aug. 20 and is the largest ever recorded outbreak, according to the World Health Organization.
No cases have been recorded in the United States, though two American health care workers contracted the virus while in Liberia and were treated in an Atlanta hospital.
We asked Pryor’s campaign for evidence backing up their claim, and they said the ad refers to the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013. The law -- passed in March 2013 -- continues funding various medical and public health emergency preparedness programs through 2018. (The first iteration of the law was passed in 2006.)
As you might guess from the name, the law pertains to preventing pandemics, like Ebola, from breaking out in the United States.
Several programs funded under the act are already working on Ebola response, such as the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said Gretchen Michaels, a spokeswoman for the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).
Additionally, the law’s 2013 reauthorization gave the Food and Drug Administration the ability to authorize use of unapproved products in the case of an emergency. So earlier this month, the FDA authorized use of a new tool for diagnosing Ebola, as well as an experimental treatment.
Did Cotton try to stop this legislation? At first, it seems that way.
The House passed the legislation Jan. 22, 2013, with strong bipartisan support and very little opposition -- 395 to 29. Cotton voted against it, along with 28 other Republicans.
The bill moved on to the Senate, where lawmakers made a few changes, passed it by a voice vote, and sent it back to the House to approve the changes. The House once again passed the Senate’s version of the bill with an overwhelming majority from both parties.
This time around, Cotton changed his position and voted for the bill. (Seven other Republicans who previously voted "nay" also changed their vote.)
It’s not clear why Cotton didn’t vote for it the first time. The law passed with such little debate that it went over without much media attention.
We reached out to Cotton’s campaign but haven’t heard back -- though they posted an article on their website refuting the claim.
According to CQ Weekly, the major difference between the House and Senate version of the act is that the House version approves funding and programs through 2017, while the Senate version goes through 2018.
We also used a tool to compare differences between the two texts and found that the final version includes a clause clarifying that state and local workers asked to temporarily take on a different assignment in case of an emergency would not be required to accept that reassignment.
Regardless, the country’s ability to address a pandemic does not hinge on either of those changes.
There is no readily available evidence showing that Cotton actively campaigned against the bill. And the final version, which got Cotton’s vote, also got positive votes from nearly every Senate and House Democrat -- including Pryor.
A Pryor for Senate ad said, "Tom Cotton voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola."
Cotton voted against one version of a 2013 pandemic and emergency preparedness bill. However, Cotton voted for the final version, which Pryor also supported. The bill easily became law.
The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.
Pryor campaign, "Emergency Response," Aug. 25, 2014
Cotton campaign press release, Aug. 26, 2014
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013," accessed Aug. 27, 2014
GovTrack, H.R. 307 - vote 24, Jan. 22, 2013
GovTrack, H.R. 307 - vote 56, March 4, 2013
CQ Roll Call, "All-Hazards preparedness bill wins House passage," Jan. 22, 2014
CQ Weekly, "House Clears Disaster Response Bill," March 11, 2013
Washington Post, "Mark Pryor injects Ebola into the Arkansas Senate race," Aug. 26, 2014
Centers for Disease Control, "Questions and Answers on Experimental Treatments and Vaccines for Ebola," accessed Aug. 27, 2014
Food and Drug Administration, "2014 Ebola Virus Emergency Use Authorization," Aug. 5, 2014
World Health Organization, "Ebola virus disease update - west Africa," Aug. 22, 2014
NBC, "Ebola Outbreak 'Not in the Cards' for U.S., CDC Director Says," July 31, 2014
NBC, "Why Are Americans so Scared of Ebola?" Aug. 26, 2014
Email and phone interview, Pryor spokesman Erik Dorey, Aug. 27, 2014
Email interview, Patrick Burgwinkle, Arkansas Democratic Party spokesman, Aug. 27, 2014
Email interview, Gretchen Michaels, Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response spokeswoman, Aug. 27, 2014
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