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Last Updated

27 Dec 2002

Source: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 26, 2002.

Congress warned against shifting CDC programs

By STEPHEN KRUPIN, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Transferring some programs from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the proposed Department of Homeland Security may compromise the nation's ability to respond to a bioterrorism attack, Congress was told Tuesday.

If approved by Congress, the new agency would assume partial control over the CDC's stockpile of emergency supplies, antidotes and pharmaceuticals. Thirty-five employees in two CDC programs would be transferred to the new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security.

But a report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, warns against the transfer. The GAO believes the transfer would hinder the simultaneous oversight of biodefense and public health done by the Department of Health and Human Services, parent agency of the CDC.

"The current proposal does not clearly provide a structure that ensures that both the goals of homeland security and public health will be met," Janet Heinrich, director of public health issues for the GAO, told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee Tuesday.

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, President Bush's point man on the creation of the new agency, defended the restructuring.

"It is clear that the public health infrastructure ... will end up having a dual value, one in combating terror, another just making our public health system more robust. And, frankly, in the long term, improving the overall health of the entire country," Ridge told the subcommittee. "Work with us on refining the language so it continues to meet the goals of the president as well as [Congress'] goal of continuing to build up a public health infrastructure."

HHS Deputy Secretary Claude Allen told the subcommittee that the CDC would provide the Department of Homeland Security with the 28 staff members who manage the pharmaceutical stockpile and seven scientists who are experts on viruses and bacteria classified as "select agents." Those are the toxins most likely to be used as bioterror weapons.

CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant said the agency "shares the White House's commitment to protecting the nation's health and safety."

But in Atlanta, anxiety over the new department has roiled the CDC's ranks. In addition to the 35 employees mentioned in Allen's testimony, many other researchers work in areas that could be considered related to bioterrorism. They would be affected by establishment of the new department.

At hearings last week to determine federal policy on smallpox vaccination, which would be carried out by the CDC, several agency staff members privately worried they would be forced to report to two departments simultaneously.

The disquiet generated by possible reassignments comes on top of potential cuts to CDC programs in Bush's 2003 budget request. Those numbers are still to be negotiated with Congress, where several members have vowed to increase aspects of the CDC's budget.

Nevertheless, the possibility that programs could be cut has led to speculation that the CDC might face staff reassignments or reductions, the first since the Reagan administration.

"Uncertainty breeds rumors," a staff member said Tuesday. "[Top managers] are telling us just to sit tight."

At the hearing Tuesday, Ronald Atlas, president-elect of the American Society of Microbiology, expressed concern that the CDC's "push packages" -- 12 sets of emergency supplies and antidotes strategically located across the country -- would be governed by the Homeland Security Department. One of these units was dispatched to New York on Sept. 11.

"The primary duty and authority should remain with the scientific agency with the existing knowledge, experience and expertise to fulfill the critical mission," he said.

Tara O'Toole, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, agreed that moving bioterrorism preparedness and response teams would diminish the dual use of current CDC programs.

"There is a real danger that by sequestering bioterrorism programs in Homeland Security, they will be treated as 'emergency use only' functions ... reducing the efficiency of preparedness efforts and quite possibly compromising response effectiveness," she said. "It is a very tall order to ask a single agency to develop national security strategy and create a sophisticated scientific research and development capability over a broad range of disciplines and technology."

Bush's proposal to create the new department combines all or parts of 22 existing federal agencies and their 170,000 employees.

The Department of Homeland Security would be the third-largest Cabinet department.

-- Staff writer M.A.J. McKenna contributed to this article.