HHS begins sending out bioterrorism funds

The federal government began sending out 20 percent of the $1.1 billion in federal funding for state and local bioterrorism preparation for fiscal 2002, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Hospitals, laboratories and first responders will begin to receive $220 million of the funds over the holiday weekend, with the remaining $880 million to be distributed this spring, Thompson told the Senate Budget Committee Thursday.

Starting March 15, state and local recipients are to begin presenting plans on how to spend the money, plans which need to be approved by their governors, then the Health and Human Services Department, Thompson said.

The final 80 percent may not reach states until May, department spokesman Bill Pierce said.

The $1.1 billion is not intended to purchase equipment such as fire trucks and chemical and biological protection suits, but is earmarked for the purchase of communications systems that link with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health alert network, Pierce said.

Some senators, however, expressed displeasure that state and local authorities have to "jump through hoops" to obtain the funds, which officials said are sorely needed to prepare U.S. cities and states for any bioterrorism attacks.

"I'm troubled, not baffled, that the Department of Health and Human Services is only releasing 20 percent of the $1.1 billion," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. "Why are the states forced to run this bureaucratic red tape gauntlet before receiving the remaining 80 percent?"

Thompson said his department is not sending out all the money immediately because state and local authorities need time to absorb the funds--and to come up with a "complete, comprehensive plan" to prepare for bioterrorism attacks in the United States.

"We will see more biological attacks, period," said Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate's only serving medical doctor.

Overall, this year's HHS budget includes $2.9 billion for various bioterrorism programs, much of it intended to give first responders the basic capabilities to respond to and handle a biological attack. Another $4.3 billion is slated for next year in the fiscal 2003 White House budget proposal.

Byrd was clearly upset that the $15 billion he proposed for bioterrorism preparation this year did not appear in the White House budget request.

Byrd's fiscal 2002 proposal had been approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee but "was basically killed on the floor," Jim Dobbs, Byrd's deputy press secretary, said.

If White House officials had not opposed his $15 billion proposal, which would have been in addition to the $40 billion in emergency supplemental funds rushed through Congress after Sept. 11, "we'd have that money right now," Byrd said.

President Bush, Byrd said, believed it was "too large and too early."

"We want to make sure that money gets out there … for surge capacity and so on," Thompson testified.

"We're anxious to get the money," said Lt. Aaron Osgood, head of special operations for the Portland, Maine, fire department. "We really need it quickly."