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Editorial: Ramp up fight against tick-borne illnesses

Editorial: Ramp up fight against tick-borne illnesses

Some are already saying it is shaping up to be a “really, really bad” year for ticks in upstate New York

Federal and state legislation has been slow to keep up with the growing threat of tick-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease.

In what some are already saying is shaping up to be a “really, really bad” year for ticks in upstate New York, state lawmakers chose to use the latter months of their six-month session to be preoccupied with legalizing marijuana and sports betting rather than to address one of the state’s most rapidly growing health emergencies.

In budget talks that ended April 1, they failed to include an anticipated $1 million for research into Lyme and tick-borne illnesses, even though the money was included in the Senate version of the budget bill.

They also failed to extend for another year the Senate Task Force on Lyme and other Tick Borne Diseases, which managed the funding, another setback in the fight against the diseases.

At the last minute, the Senate announced that some funding had been restored through a program bill.

Included in the $250,000 allocation is $100,000 for continued support of the five-year Tick Project at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. The project is designed to look into the effects of neighborhood-based prevention. The allocation also included $50,000 for research at the University at Stony Brook, Cornell Cooperative Extension for education and outreach and Columbia Medical Center’s Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Research Center.

While any money from the state is welcome and will be put to good use, funding this fight through one-shot legislative membership allocations is not the long-term plan the state needs to combat the spread and treatment of tick-borne illness.

State lawmakers also failed to help long-term sufferers of Lyme disease.

Among the legislation that failed to pass this session was a bill (A178/S426) that would have required health insurers to provide long-term medical care for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, including possibly intravenous antibiotic therapy and oral antibiotic therapy. The bill also would have allowed taxpayers to provide a gift toward research and other efforts to raise public awareness of tick-borne illnesses. But it got stuck in committee, where it stayed until the end of session.

Lawmakers also failed to pass a bill (A2767/S4186) that would have amended the state insurance and workers’ compensation laws to require health insurers to provide coverage for long-term medical care for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.

Current law does not specifically stipulate that Lyme disease and other tick-borne related pathogens be covered under individual and group health insurance policies or workers’ compensation, according to the bill memo, even though the potentially debilitating Lyme disease can stay with a person for life and can get worse without proper treatment.

Given that New York is among the worst states in the country for tick-borne cases, with about 8,000 cases per year according to state Health Department estimates, it’s irresponsible for the Legislature not to mandate insurance coverage for long-term treatment.

While progress appears to be stalled in New York’s government, the federal government seems to be moving ahead with legislation to provide more funding for research and create more awareness.

Federal lawmakers are considering legislation (HR220/S1657) called the “Ticks: Identify, Control, and Knockout Act,” or TICK Act (Legislators are clever at coming up with acronyms), The bill, which is cosponsored by area Reps. Elise Stefanik (a Republican) and Antonio Delgado (a Democrat), offers a three-pronged approach to the problem.

One, it would set up an Office of Oversight and Coordination at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a national strategy on expanding research, improving testing and coordinating efforts among several federal agencies and departments, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The second part reauthorizes regional centers of excellence for vector-borne diseases and provides $10 million in annual funding through 2026. These centers, the bill memo says, collaborate with academia and public health agencies for surveillance, prevention and outbreak response.

The third part of the TICK Act authorizes $20 million annually through 2026 for grants administered through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grants would be used to build a “public health infrastructure” for Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses and expand initiative through public-private partnerships.

This legislation places significant money behind a national effort to combat tick-borne diseases.

Is it enough? Hardly. But it’s a good start, in that it supports research that could prompt lawmakers to allocate more funding in the future.

With the number of tick-borne illnesses rising in New York and across the country, state and federal lawmakers need to place more emphasis, and allocate more money, to reining in the problem.

The latest efforts are encouraging. But they need to ramp it up. Quickly.

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