Stateline Story

HHS Chief Touts Bioterrorism Response

  • May 03, 2002
  • By John Nagy

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson is bragging about the turnaround time between passage of a $1.1 bioterrorism prevention bill and completion of state plans for spending the money.

Thompson told the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday (5/2) that his department got first-round readiness plans from nearly every state health department less than 100 days after President Bush signed the legislation.

Thompson also said he expected the nation's pharmaceutical stockpile to include up to 363 million doses of smallpox vaccine by the end of this year, up from the 15.6 million doses currently available.

"We are building a more cohesive public health system and doing so faster than many thought possible," Thompson said.

State epidemiologist Dennis Perrotta, who coordinated Texas's applications for bioterror grant money, told Stateline.org that the three-month turnaround time from legislative authorization to state action was the fastest he'd seen in his career.

But committee chairman Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) questioned whether the money was passing through state hands to local agencies, first responders, hospitals and other components of the bioterror readiness network quickly enough.

Thompson acknowledged that states thus far have tapped into only $2.9 million of the $229 million portion of the grants earmarked to help them assess immediate needs and address expenses they incurred while responding to last fall's anthrax scare.

That money, part of the cash available to states to tackle glaring public health needs, is set up like a bank account that HHS and state officials say they may draw upon to cover appropriate expenses at any time.

"The states have been very good ... they just haven't taken the money and used it yet," Thompson told Byrd.

Thompson promised that the full $1.1 billion in bioterror grant money would be available to states by the end of this month, saying that state and territorial plans are being reviewed by 11 teams within HHS.

Most of the funding, more than $980 million administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), will tackle public health priorities such as improved communications, training and laboratory equipment. The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is responsible for the remaining $125 million, set aside to help states coordinate planning with hospitals and other emergency care providers in the event of an attack using biological agents.

Montana and Utah have yet to submit completed applications for the remainder of the CDC money. Thompson said Utah's focus on ensuring the safety and success of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City delayed work on its application.

Texas is the only state yet to submit its plan to HRSA. Perrotta said the sheer size of Texas' hospital and emergency services network, coupled with a lack of substantive disaster readiness data lead it to focus on its $51 million CDC grant before taking on the $8 million HRSA grant full time.