Panel votes to shift medical disaster system from DHS

The Homeland Security Department would lose jurisdiction over the National Disaster Medical System under a bill approved Wednesday by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The committee approved the bill by voice vote.

The bill (H.R. 5438), sponsored by Dingell and committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, calls for removing the National Disaster Medical System from the purview of Homeland Security within nine months. The system is charged with supporting federal agencies in managing and coordinating federal medical disaster response, including for natural disasters, bioterrorism attacks, technological disasters and major transportation accidents.

The measure places the system, which helps coordinate the federal response to major health and medical emergencies, back under the purview of the Health and Human Services Department, undoing a shift made in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The bill also seeks to defend against future jurisdictional incursions by codifying into law that HHS serves as the primary agency for addressing national health emergencies and disasters.

Committee ranking member Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said Congress must "remain vigilant" against future attempts to grant new authority to Homeland Security "unless we want to see these agencies suffer the fate of [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]."

FEMA's performance during Hurricane Katrina was roundly criticized.

"The things we saw on the ground in the wake of [Hurricane] Katrina really underscored why we need to move that function back to [HHS]," said Rep Michael Burgess, R-Texas. The system - along with a host of other government functions - was transferred to Homeland Security under the 2002 Homeland Security Act.

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