Local Officials Question Federal Funding for Bioterrorism Preparedness
Public health officials said yesterday that the funding level sought by the Bush administration to boost the nation's preparedness for bioterrorism on the local level is "inadequate," the Washington Post reports. Last week, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that the administration has requested $1.5 billion in emergency funding for counter-bioterrorism initiatives. About $1.2 billion would be used to purchase and stockpile antibiotics and vaccines, and $300 million would be allocated to local and state hospitals, health departments and laboratories. But during the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Atlanta, health officials said that the federal government needs to spend "billions" to train epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists on how to identify and treat biological agents. APHA Executive Director Mohammed Akhter said the $300 million request for local and state health entities is "not adequate," adding, "We need $1 billion." Karen Krause, an Ohio health care consultant, said, "Antibiotics and vaccines without staff and basic infrastructure is like putting Band-Aids on a huge wound."
According to Akhter, at least 10% of the nation's 3,000 public health agencies do not have email capabilities, and the "vast majority" are closed on nights and weekends (Connolly, Washington Times, 10/23). Further, a new survey from the National Association of County and City Health Officials notes that only 20% of local health agencies have a "comprehensive bioterrorism response plan," 56% are developing such a plan and 24% have "no plan at all" (Terhune, Wall Street Journal, 10/23). In addition, many local health departments have become "strain[ed]" by responding to anthrax-related issues in the past few weeks. According to a survey by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, state health departments expect to spend an average of $1 million to $5 million over the next three months responding to possible anthrax threats. "Many jurisdictions are telling me that they have run out of a year's worth of budget already," Akhter said (Dembner, Boston Globe, 10/23). Besides funding issues, many of the 12,000 attendees at the APHA meeting said they were "frustrated" by "poor communication" between state and federal agencies and local jurisdictions on bioterrorism issues, USA Today reports (Copeland, USA Today, 10/23).
Thompson, who attended the meeting, acknowledged the difficulties local health officials are facing, saying, "I know many of you are feeling truly overwhelmed." However, he "defended" the administration's funding request, saying that $300 million is "so much more than [the public health community] has gotten before." Thompson also said that HHS is considering "other options," including using private labs to alleviate some of the burden on public labs stemming from the anthrax scares, "loosening" FDA regulation on using the anthrax vaccine for treatment and adding potassium to the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile for use in the event of a nuclear attack. Also yesterday, President Bush signed an executive order adding HHS to the list of agencies given "contracting authority for national defense purposes," a move that will "help expedite the manufacture and storage of vaccines" (Washington Post, 10/23).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.