Bush Signs Homeland Security Legislation, Nominates Ridge To Head New Department
President Bush yesterday signed legislation creating a new Department of Homeland Security, a move that will reorganize the federal government's anti-terrorism efforts, the Los Angeles Times reports. The law gives the new department control over 22 federal agencies and creates a "new bureaucracy" of 170,000 federal workers, according to the Times (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 11/26). The new department will be responsible for domestic security protection, which includes training health care workers to respond to potential terrorist attacks. Under the law, some HHS responsibilities, such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response programs and civilian bio-defense research, will transfer to the new department. The law also includes a provision that provides legal protection to health care workers who provide smallpox vaccinations. Under the provision, individuals or facilities that provide vaccinations could not face personal liability from lawsuits filed by those injured or killed by the vaccine, and the federal government will defend the lawsuits and cover the cost of damage awards. The legislation limits awards to compensation for injuries and prohibits punitive damages (California Healthline, 11/20).
At the signing ceremony, Bush said the department will focus "all our efforts to face the challenge of cyberterrorism, and the even worse danger of nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism." He added, "This department will be charged with encouraging research on new technologies that can detect these threats in time to prevent an attack" (White House release, 11/25). After signing the law, Bush nominated Tom Ridge, head of the White House Office of Homeland Security, as secretary of the new department. If confirmed by the Senate, Ridge will take office Jan. 24 (Mintz, Washington Post, 11/26). NPR's "Morning Edition" today included an interview with Ridge about his nomination and the "difficult administrative task" of creating the new department (Edwards, "Morning Edition," NPR, 11/26). The full segment will be available online in RealPlayer.
Before the legislation creating the new department was sent to Bush, lawmakers debated, but ultimately approved, a provision that protects vaccine manufacturers from liability (Firestone, New York Times, 11/23). The provision protects vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits filed over allegations that thimerosal, a mercury-based vaccine preservative, causes autism in children. Under the provision, a federal vaccine compensation program established in 1988 to provide liability protection for vaccine manufacturers will address lawsuits related to vaccines. The legislation stipulates that vaccine manufacturers may only be sued if a plaintiff is "unhappy" with the remedy offered by the federal program. To ensure passage of the homeland security bill in the 107th Congress, Republican leaders promised to "revisit" the issue in January and amend the exemption so that it does not apply to lawsuits that have already been filed (California Healthline, 11/22). Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who has an autistic grandchild, said, "[P]arents who have children who are autistic and suspect they've been damaged by vaccines or mercury, they ought to have some recourse. And right now they have virtually none" (Firestone, New York Times, 11/23).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.