HHS pandemic plan unlikely to receive adequate funding

February 1, 2010

Several public health threats prompted a new but underfunded plan

NATIONAL REPORTS-Prompted by 2006 legislation, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released its first National Health Security Strategy last month, hard on the heels of the H1N1 pandemic.

The plan is focused on protecting people's health during a large-scale emergency, according to a statement from HHS, and includes 10 objectives and an implementation guide to assist public and private healthcare organizations prepare for and manage health threats.

The policy is unlikely to receive adequate funding in the near future, according to Joseph White, professor of public policy, epidemiology and biostatistics, and director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

BIRD FLU PROMPTS NEW PLAN

The security strategy was mandated in the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act, passed shortly after the avian flu scare in 2005 and the SARS epidemic in 2003. The legislation directed the HHS secretary to develop the plan with an accompanying implementation process by 2009 and to revise the documents every four years. HHS stated, however, that it will update the implementation plan every two years to reflect advances in public health and medicine.

"As we've learned in the response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, responsibility for improving our nation's ability to address existing and emerging health threats must be broadly shared by everyone-governments, communities, families, and individuals," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. "The National Health Security Strategy is a call to action for each of us so that every community becomes fully prepared and ready to recover quickly after an emergency."

White believes this policy is, in part, the Obama administration's attempt to better define duties between the HHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which joined the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11. Before the terrorist attacks, FEMA took an "all hazards" approach to disaster management, which included health epidemics, White says.

"A lot of serious public administration people whom I know said at the time that putting FEMA in DHS was a terrible idea," he says. "So 'all hazards' was eliminated, and FEMA basically stopped paying attention to little things like hurricanes and epidemics."

The goals of HHS's strategy, such as building community resilience and strengthening and sustaining emergency response systems make sense, he says, but are unlikely to be high priorities.

"I'd be shocked if there is real money behind it," he says.