Defense bill accelerates opportunity for DOD-UNMC partnership

by Karen Burbach
January 01, 2021

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In 2019, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Nebraska Medicine announced plans for "Project NExT," a transformational public-private partnership to build a federal all-hazard health security disaster response space.
 
Now, with Congressional approval of the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and last week’s approval of the federal omnibus FY2021 appropriations bill - the door is open for the medical center’s "once-in-a-generation" Project NExT to advance as a key part of a broad national approach to health security. These bills enable UNMC to continue to establish a public-private partnership with the federal government to achieve the goals of a DoD-NExT project.
 
The recent federal authorizations and appropriations build upon both the passage of LB 1107 (formerly LB 1084) last August by the Nebraska Unicameral legislature and continued enthusiastic participation by private sector philanthropy.
 
"The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically underscored the urgency for the development of key public-private partnerships to establish true readiness and response capabilities for current and emerging 21st century health security threats," said UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey P. Gold, MD. "We are very grateful for the shared vision and the skilled efforts by the Nebraska delegation to team manage the appropriations and authorization process for this large project. This is completely consistent with the recent state legislation and our community philanthropic leaders commitments. The university is excited about the opportunity to participate with our federal, state and community partners as this process moves forward and is confident that UNMC will be a strong competitor for site selection of this project."
 
"The NDAA language is important because it directs the establishment of a medical surge partnership program in law for the first time and puts the Department of Defense on an aggressive timeline to select the first locations early next year," said Rep. Don Bacon, who led the legislative effort on the House Armed Services Committee. "The past year has underscored the need for our nation to be better prepared, whether it’s for another pandemic, a biological attack or any other national medical emergency. The Pentagon recognizes the cutting edge and innovative work being done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and I am confident UNMC will play a significant role in the federal government’s response strategy moving forward." 
 
"This is a big win," said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who led the effort in the appropriations committee. "Through our efforts in Congress, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Department of Defense will receive $15 million toward the creation of the nation’s first surge hospital. I commend UNMC’s far-sighted leadership in protecting America from infectious disease."
 
"The skills of Rep. Fortenberry on the House Appropriations Committee and Sen. Fischer and Rep. Bacon on the respective Armed Services authorizing committees create this opportunity for Nebraska to participate in this important multi-federal department project," Dr. Gold said.
 
The appropriations provision authored by Rep. Fortenberry allows the DoD to work collaboratively with selected private partners to enhance disaster medical training and surge capacity. The appropriations bill, which passed Monday, includes $15 million for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to advance the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) medical surge pilot program.
 
UNMC’s "Project NExT" addresses the needs described by the DoD pilot program to improve training, research and create a prototype hub-and-spoke, all-hazards facility that will serve the federal government’s need for global, national and regional health security.
 
"We are appreciative to Sen. Fischer and Rep. Bacon for their defense expertise and ability to skillfully advocate for these highly important authorizing requirements," Dr. Gold said. "The authorization language is vital to advancing the defense program and the UNMC project. Sen Sasse’s efforts to bring the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) leadership together with the Department of Defense are also much appreciated." Sen. Ben Sasse served as an HHS Assistant Secretary under President George W. Bush.
 
"The language I helped include in the FY2021 NDAA and omnibus package will make important improvements to the federal government's response to future health emergencies," said Sen. Deb Fischer, who led the effort on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "UNMC has some of the world's best talent when it comes to emerging health care challenges and medical disasters, and I am confident they will offer a compelling case for inclusion in this pilot program."
 
Said Sen. Ben Sasse: "This is a win for Nebraska. We worked hard for this because the team at UNMC has never backed down during this pandemic. They have proven their world-class expertise and were a nationwide leader at the beginning of the pandemic. This partnership will bring much-needed health security to Nebraska and the country more broadly. I am proud of the work we did together to make this happen."
 
The authorizing language by Sen. Fischer and Rep. Bacon states the importance of giving priority consideration to public-private partnerships with academic medical centers that have an established history of providing clinical care, training and research in highly infectious diseases, biocontainment, quarantine, trauma, NDMS training and health security in disaster health preparedness and response.
 
"We also are very grateful to Gov. Pete Ricketts and his team for their enthusiastic guidance and support and for working so closely with our federal delegation and the executive branch to facilitate the authorization and appropriation process," Dr. Gold said. "This is truly a team process."
 
UNMC and Nebraska Medicine are recognized globally for their preparedness and skill in handling a broad spectrum of 21st century health security threats, including chemical, radiological and trauma, as well as highly infectious outbreaks, biocontainment and quarantine. UNMC continues to provide extensive NDMS special pathogens education and training. The med center treated Ebola patients in 2014 and, this year, was among the first in the nation to repatriate U.S. citizens from China and Japan, who were exposed to coronavirus. UNMC is home to the HHS National Quarantine Center, a co-leader of the National Emerging Special Pathogens Training and Education Center (NETEC) and one of two U.S. pilot demonstration sites for the HHS Regional Disaster Health Response program.
 
The FY21 appropriations bill also approved $11 million for NETEC.