State groups offer specifics for spending swine flu funds

Several health organizations Tuesday suggested ways in which the federal government could help them deal with the swine flu outbreak, at a cost of about $1 billion.

The plea to aid the public health sector, battered recently by several thousand layoffs and program cutbacks, came during an emergency hearing called by Senate Labor-HHS Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Harkin, who said he is concerned about the states' ability to respond to a pandemic, announced he will seek to add $870 million for pandemic flu preparedness to the fiscal 2009 supplemental appropriations bill.

He attempted to include the money in the stimulus bill this year, but those funds were removed after some Senate Republicans deemed it pork-barrel spending.

Harkin's $870 million request would not go toward helping states; it would create the vaccines and build facilities to make them.

Paul Jarris, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, presented the request on behalf of his group and two others before President Obama announced he was requesting Congress add $1.5 billion to the supplemental bill.

The announcement came as a pleasant surprise to Jarris and Harkin when it came during the hearing, even if it fell a bit short of their combined requests.

Jarris told the subcommittee a "vulnerability" in the government's response is there are fewer state health officials around to quickly distribute the vaccine once it is developed.

To aid the response to outbreaks, Jarris said $350 million of his request should help state and local health agencies resume their pandemic influenza planning after funding for such activity ended in August.

The extra money would employ recently laid-off staffers, aid in the distribution of vaccines, staff a 24-hour disease-reporting hotline, and educate clinicians and the public.

"We need the workforce on the ground so when we have that vaccine, we can put it in people's arms," he said.

Another $122 million would enable the government to purchase 8 million more doses of the vaccine to meet the stockpile goal of 75 million.

The largest chunk of the groups' request, $563 million, would buy vaccines and protective gear, like masks, gloves and gowns, for first responders and other health workers in contact with patients suffering from swine flu.

"We owe it to the people on the front lines to be protected, but we've been hearing from the hospitals that they're concerned about people showing up for work if they aren't offered protection for putting themselves in harm's way," he said.

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