Key health items may take back seat to bioterrorism

WASHINGTON -- Critical public health dangers like a virulent outbreak of influenza could take a back seat to bioterrorism threats under President Bush's plan to move key health agencies to a new Homeland Security Department, Congress was told Tuesday.

Lawmakers, health advisers and experts from the General Accounting Office said at a House hearing that transferring public health functions from the Health and Human Services Department to the new agency could undermine the basic effort to keep Americans healthy.

"It may seriously affect our ability to respond to serious threats to the health of the American people," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce oversight subcommittee.

The hearing was the first of more than a dozen this week in the House and Senate into Bush's plan to merge 100 federal entities and 170,000 employees into a single Cabinet department devoted to homeland security.

Congressional leaders are rushing to pass initial versions of the plan by the end of July, but complaints about specific pieces have arisen.

Officials from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, testified that the president's plan transfers numerous programs that help state and local governments cope with outbreaks of naturally occurring diseases and pathogens.

These include the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness, the Strategic National Stockpile -- which includes packages of pharmaceuticals, antidotes and medical supplies that can be rushed anywhere in the United States within 12 hours -- and several programs within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to enhance local public health capabilities.

"Although HHS programs are important for homeland security, they are just as important to the day-to-day needs of public health agencies and hospitals, such as reporting on disease outbreaks," said Janet Heinrich, GAO director of public health issues. Bush's plan, she said, "does not clearly provide a structure that ensures that both goals" can be met.