Panel moves bill to deal with pandemic, health disasters

A Senate committee moved legislation Wednesday aimed at improving the nation's efforts to prepare and respond to a flu pandemic and other medical and health disasters and emergencies.

The legislation (S. 3678) was approved by voice vote by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It would reauthorize a 2002 law, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Act, passed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It was aimed at preparing local, state and federal medical and health professionals to respond to a terrorist attack and other emergencies.

Supporters said S. 3678 would build on lessons learned from the problems surrounding the local, state and federal response to Hurricane Katrina and by the need to prepare for the outbreak of a potential pandemic from the Avian flu, also known as the bird flu.

Health officials from around the globe are taking steps to prepare for the possibility that the bird flu could turn into pandemic. The bird flu has killed 132 people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East since 2003, according to the World Health Organization. While the flu has been spread by contact with infected birds, health officials worry that it could cause a major health crisis if it is spread more easily between humans, who have little or no immunity to the virus, according to the Health and Human Services Department.

From Hurricane Katrina, "we have learned about the need for centralized command and clear lines of authority when preparing for, and responding to a public health crisis," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the committee's Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness Subcommittee and S. 3678's sponsor. "This need, along with the potential for a deadly bird flu pandemic, makes it even more important we improve our public health and medical preparedness and response for emergencies and disasters."

He noted that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Homeland Security Department found that 68 percent of states said they did not believe they had disaster plans that were capable of handling a catastrophic event like Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast last summer and exposed problems in planning and response at all levels of government.

During a July 14 field hearing in New Orleans by the subcommittee, public health experts discussed the problems hospitals and other health providers experienced in the aftermath of Katrina including inadequate evacuation plans for hospitals, a lack of reliable communications and insufficient stockpiles of supplies such as food, medicines and generators.

The bill would authorize more than $1 billion a year in federal funding for HHS grants for public health and medical preparedness and would require states by 2009 to provide a 5 percent match of federal funding and a 10 percent match beginning in 2010.

In addition, the bill would designate the secretary of Health and Human Services as the lead federal official responsible for public health and medical responses to emergencies, including a flu pandemic; require states to meet performance standards developed by the HHS secretary to ensure a basic level of preparedness for disasters; and establish a system for promoting, organizing and training health care volunteers for disasters.

It also would require HHS to build on state and local efforts to establish a "near real-time" public health situation awareness network aimed at detecting and containing infectious disease outbreaks and aims to improve the ability for local hospitals to respond to emergencies by promoting the use of mobile medical assets.

"This reauthorization provides better coordination and better preparation between local, state and federal authorities; a bigger and better supply of drugs, vaccines and other medical products; and greater accountability and better evaluations of each state's preparedness," said full committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

By voice vote, the committee approved a substitute amendment that made technical changes to the bill, according to Burr. While committee members on both sides of the aisle expressed support for the legislation, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said he was concerned that the bill fails to fix two "glaring" problems. He said the 2002 health security and bioterrorism law gave vaccine manufacturers "sweeping" protections from liability and did not provide adequate compensation for those who have had adverse reactions to vaccines.

He noted that problems with the small pox vaccine in recent years led some emergency first responders to refuse to take the vaccine. While he supports some liability protections for vaccine producers to ensure there are enough manufacturers, he said the current protections could encourage "fly-by night operators" to manufacture shoddy vaccines.

"If you have a problem with the product and have a problem with distribution of the product ... than all the other charts and flow charts and coordination are not going to work," Dodd said following the markup.

Dodd said while he has raised his concerns with the bill's sponsors, he "may" offer an amendment to address his concerns when the bill goes to the Senate floor.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also said she would like to see language added to the bill to ensure that states that border Canada could use federal funds to work with officials from Canadian provinces to coordinate preparedness and response efforts.

Burr said he planned to meet with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Wednesday and would "encourage" him to move the bill to the Senate floor before the August recess.

"This is one of the few pieces of legislation that has passed any committee with tremendous bipartisan support, I would anticipate that the leader is anxious to get this up" on the floor, Burr said following the markup.

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