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Mixed Bag for NCHS, Vital Records Funding

Emily J. Holubowich, MPP, Senior Vice President, Cavarocchi Ruscio Dennis Associates

As we've written many times before, funding for Electronic Death Registration Systems (EDRS) has become almost a cause célèbre in Washington as means to more, better, faster death data for both public health and fraud prevention purposes. The President in February once again requested $5 million in funding for the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to support jurisdictions in implementing EDRS nationwide (read more here). Congress seems to be listening, with heightened attention on the deficiencies in the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Public Death Master File (DMF) and the recognition that EDRS is the best option for getting more accurate state death data to SSA, quickly.

But will lawmakers put money where their mouths are?

On June 24 & 25, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees both approved spending bills for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, and it's a mixed bag for vital records funding. The House accepted the President's request for EDRS funding, providing NCHS a $5 million increase in its budget in fiscal year 2016. The Senate, on the other hand, cuts NCHS's budget by $10 million, but provides guidance to the agency in non-binding "report language" to nonetheless prioritize implementation of EDRS.

What happens next is anyone's guess. Political and fiscal dynamics make it unlikely that either chamber's "Labor-HHS" spending bill will see any floor time. With just a few working weeks remaining before the September 30 fiscal year's end, the best-case scenario is a short-term continuing resolution to keep the government running. Worst-case scenario; another government shutdown. Many advocates hope Congress will reach another bipartisan, budget deal to provide some relief from sequestration—which returns in fiscal 2016—and restore many of the draconian cuts in the spending bills, including the Senate's cut to NCHS. But in the end, all Congress may be able to accomplish is a year-long continuing resolution at current levels if passing final spending legislation proves too hard.

In the end, this year may be just another year in which funding for vital statistics system modernization is so close, and yet so far.


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