Lawmaker cries foul over government-sponsored travel to global conference

A Republican senator is blasting the government for spending more than $450,000 to send a delegation of federal employees to the 2008 International AIDS conference in Mexico City this week.

At least 116 federal employees, the majority of whom work at agencies within the Health and Human Services Department, traveled south of the border on the government's dime for the annual conference, according to a report released July 31 by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Coburn is the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security.

"Whether it is the biennial international AIDS conferences or one of the countless domestic HIV/AIDS conferences, taxpayers have been spending millions every year to send federal employees to talk about a disease, when instead, using the same funds for prevention, treatment or research would almost certainly have been a better use of taxpayer resources," the report's executive summary stated.

The estimated costs associated with the trip include money for hotels and per diems, registration fees, airfare and a U.S. government booth. HHS paid for 93 of its employees from five agencies to go to Mexico City at a total cost of $360,500, though only 78 attended the full conference. The five participating agencies were the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health Resources and Services Administration, Food and Drug Administration, and the Office of Public Health and Science's Office of HIV/AIDS Policy.

The remaining federal employees attending the five-day conference were from the Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department (Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator), Peace Corps and the Census Bureau. Four of those agencies spent less than $10,000 on costs associated with the trip; the Census Bureau estimated a cost of $10,500 to send four employees.

The Office of Management and Budget said it appreciates Coburn's vigilance over how to spend taxpayer dollars, but deferred to the General Services Administration, which regulates federal travel, and agencies' own common sense. "Agencies have procedures and guidance on conferences, and conference travel to minimize costs and make sure their employees' participation is based on mission-needs," said OMB spokeswoman Jane Lee.

The costs cited in the report are based on agencies' responses to a Feb. 22 inquiry from Coburn. The Oklahoma lawmaker, who is a physician, has called on agencies to rein in the amount of money they spend on sending employees to conferences and other government-sponsored trips. HHS said in a statement said that the number of employees attending this year's conference is the same number of staff who traveled to the event two years ago in Toronto and "approximately one third [of those] who went" to the 2002 meeting in Bangkok. Department spokeswoman Holly Babin wrote in an e-mail that the department "places a high priority" on HIV/AIDS research that will further the prevention and treatment of the disease.

"To this end, we continually strive to ensure we use our resources in the most efficient and targeted way," she wrote. "This includes evaluating that an appropriate amount of people are at scientific gatherings. We do recognize our experts can benefit from the knowledge of others and share what they learn by attending conferences, but we must strike the right balance when approving expensive international travel."

HIV/AIDS research has been a priority for the Bush administration. President Bush recently signed into law H.R. 5501, which authorizes up to $48 billion to combat global HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. It's an expansion of a 2003 five-year $15 billion program. Congress has yet to appropriate the funds, however.

The conference, which runs from Aug. 3 to Aug. 8, was expected to attract tens of thousands of people around the world involved in the prevention and eradication of HIV/AIDS. Portions of the five-day conference are being webcast.

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