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Last Updated

31 Oct 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2002.


House Sweeps Through Bioterrorism Bill

Legislation: Measure would provide local agencies with medicine and training, add protection to the water and food supplies.


WASHINGTON -- The House, citing new terrorist threats, overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday to help state and local governments, hospitals, health-care workers, disease researchers, water utilities and food inspectors prepare for and defend against bioterrorist attacks.

Reflecting lawmakers' strong desire to show a united political front against terrorism, the 425-1 vote came less than a day after House and Senate conferees agreed on a compromise version of the legislation. The Senate could vote on the measure as soon as today, and President Bush is expected to sign it upon his return from Europe.

Noting that "America is again on heightened alert," Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), co-sponsor of the House bill, said it would make "broad and dramatic investments in our public-health infrastructure to ensure the safety and security of the American people." Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), co-sponsor of the Senate version, said the country faces a "risk that is higher than it was a year ago." While "our vulnerabilities are large," he said, they are reduced by the provisions of the legislation.

Lawmakers in both houses began working on anti-terrorism legislation soon after the Sept. 11 attacks. Then the anthrax scare of last fall, in which anthrax-tainted letters caused the deaths of five people and injured at least 13 others, prompted lawmakers to focus on bioterrorism preparedness.

The House and Senate passed slightly different versions of the legislation late last fall.

The compromise version, when combined with funds already approved for this fiscal year, lifts the total anti-bioterrorism authorization for this year and next to more than $4.6 billion. The exact amount that will actually be spent will be decided in appropriation bills.

Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said some of the bill's provisions would protect Americans not only against bioterrorism attacks but also against more "day-to-day" dangers such as contaminated food and medications with life-threatening side effects.

In addition, the legislation extends a 1992 law that requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to pay fees to the Food and Drug Administration. The agency uses the money to hire additional researchers and speed up the review process needed before new drugs can come to market. The bill specifically targets generic drugs, which are much less expensive than name brands, for quicker review, sponsors said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said the FDA and the Agriculture Department would gain hundreds of new inspectors trained to detect spoiled food and protect crops and livestock from biological or chemical sabotage.

The bill also imposes new safety and security requirements on laboratories and individuals who handle the 36 most dangerous biological agents and toxins and sets up a national database to keep track of where they are.

Overall, the bill represents "the largest investment in public health in our history," Thompson said.

Specifically, the bill authorizes:

*$1.5 billion in grants to state and local governments, hospitals and local health agencies to use in planning for emergencies, training health-care personnel to recognize illnesses caused by deadly biological or chemical agents and preparing to handle the large number of patients who could be killed or injured in a bioterrorist attack.

*Almost $1.2 billion to expand the nation's stockpile of vaccines to prevent infection from the dispersal of deadly substances such as the smallpox virus, and drugs to treat related illnesses.

*$545 million to improve the safety of the nation's food supply.

*More than $100 million to improve security at all community water systems that serve more than 3,300 people.

The bill requires drinking-water utilities to conduct "vulnerability assessments" of their plants and to report findings to the Environmental Protection Agency. Tauzin said the report summaries would be well secured by the agency and would not "end up on the Internet." After Sept. 11, authorities found layouts of many utilities available online.

But Tom Curtis, a spokesman for the American Water Works Assn., said he was worried that the reports could still end up in the wrong hands. They are basically "a blueprint on how to attack a water utility," he said.

In addition, some water utilities may have to seek rate hikes if the federal government doesn't provide more funds for the assessments, Curtis said.

The lone no vote on the House was cast by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).