Update: Due to response to this blog post, we would like to share additional information with those who are interested in signing-on to the letter. If you would like to sign-on, please contact Trust for America’s Health by e-mailing rhamburg@TFAH.org.

A short-sighted proposal from U.S. Senator Mike Johanns, a Nebraska Republican, would gut the brand-new $15 billion Prevention and Public Health Fund, created as part of the health reform law, to pay for a change in business tax-reporting rules. The Prevention Fund was established to support national, state and local programs to make Americans healthier and reduce racial and ethnic health disparities. President Obama has already allocated $500 million from the fund.

Johanns’ amendment is slated for a vote on Sept. 14, the day after Congress returns from August recess, and has some strong business backing. Learn more about this strike at a key component of health reform on a 1 p.m. call tomorrow hosted by Community Catalyst and three partner organizations.

The Prevention Fund is key to our long-term health, to controlling soaring health costs, and to advancing health equity. Among the programs Johanns’ proposed amendment would wipe out are the innovative Community Transformation Grants. These grants are designed to help local communities address health disparities and reduce chronic diseases by promoting healthy living and tackling the social and economic causes of poor health. They are also the main avenue in the health reform law for addressing the root causes of health disparities, such as poor availability of healthy food and exposure to environmental hazards.

The Johanns amendment could also threaten initiatives to increase vaccination against disease, as well as millions of dollars a year in state grants to reduce obesity and tackle other public health problems. Congress envisioned all of these being supported by the Prevention Fund, which dedicates $15 billion over 10 years to beef up the tiny portion of health spending now devoted to preventing illness.

Johanns proposed the amendment to a bill (H.R. 5292, the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act) that would create a loan fund and tax breaks for small businesses.  His amendment would overturn a portion of the health reform law that requires business to provide more detailed reporting to the Internal Revenue Service about services and materials they buy. Small businesses, in particular, are concerned that the new reporting would be a burden, and passage of the amendment is a real possibility.

To offset the loss of tax revenue created by his proposal, Johanns would tap $11 billion from the Prevention Fund – all of the money allocated for the fund from 2010 through 2017. He would also weaken another critical component of health reform – the requirement that everyone who can afford health insurance must obtain it, or pay a penalty. Our partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have written a detailed analysis of the proposal.

Community Catalyst is signing onto a letter to Congress opposing the gutting of the Prevention Fund, and we urge other organizations to do the same. We also recommend contacting Senators directly to let them know that the Prevention Fund should not be up for grabs. Two small business organizations, Small Business Majority and Main Street Alliance, are also speaking out against the attack on the Prevention Fund, with Main Street saying it would “seriously undermine the improved access and cost containment goals of health reform.”

Ironically, Johanns’ attempt to wipe out the Prevention Fund comes just as Congress is considering separate measures to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund to the Community Transformation Grants for fiscal year 2011. Rules for the competitive grant program are still being developed, but the health reform law says the grants should go to state and local governments and community-based organizations for changes in policies, programs, environment and infrastructure including increasing access to nutritious foods, creating parks, and creating healthier school environments.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, is offering an alternative that helps small businesses without harming the Prevention Fund. It scales back, rather than eliminates, the new tax reporting requirement, and funds the change by ending a tax break for the nation’s five large oil companies.  Nelson’s amendment is also slated for a vote on Sept. 14. Both this and Johanns’ amendment need 60 votes to pass, and the votes could be close.

It’s crucial to the success of health reform to beat back the Johanns amendment and send a message to others who would try to hijack the Prevention Fund for other purposes.

— Alice Dembner, policy manager