House backs keeping HHS in charge of bioterrorism preparedness

Jul 22, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The House of Representatives' version of a bill to set up a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would keep the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in control of public health programs for dealing with bioterrorism, according to an official of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

The bill approved by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security Jul 19 generally satisfies the desire of public health groups not to transfer public health aspects of bioterrorism programs to the proposed new department, Janet Shoemaker, ASM director of public affairs, said today. Shoemaker has been monitoring congressional consideration of the Bush administration's DHS proposal.

The Select Committee accepted recommendations from the House Energy and Commerce Committee not to separate defenses against biological and chemical weapons from other public health programs under HHS control, Shoemaker told CIDRAP News. "Basically the Select committee accepted the Energy and Commerce Committee markup for those programs," she said.

The administration's original proposal (HR 5005, the Homeland Security Act of 2002) would give DHS the lead role in conducting research on defenses against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism. Along with ASM, several public health groups have voiced concern that transferring bioterrorism preparedness planning and research to the new department would undermine efforts to strengthen the public health system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), both part of HHS, now administer most biodefense programs, including support for state and local public health preparedness and research on threats to human health.

Shoemaker said the Select Committee made some changes in the Energy and Commerce Committee language in order to increase coordination between HHS and DHS, but the approved version "still recommends that the health functions stay within HHS."

The Select Committee, a panel set up specifically to handle the DHS bill, last week considered recommendations from 11 House committees. Shoemaker said the resulting legislation is expected to go to the House Rules Committee Jul 23 and to the House floor Jul 24.

In a report, the Energy and Commerce Committee said its recommended changes clarify that the DHS "will not conduct human health-related research and development activities . . . but will nonetheless play an important role in identifying priorities and developing national policy and a strategic plan for such research as it pertains to the threats of biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear terrorism."

The Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., also recommended eliminating section 505 of the administration bill. This section says that the secretary of homeland security, working "through HHS," would take responsibility for assisting state and local agencies with preparedness for CBRN events and "other public health emergencies," and also for building and renovating security systems for HHS facilities. The section also would give the DHS secretary "authority to establish the preparedness and response program, including the setting of priorities." The committee said it was unclear how this would affect the HHS secretary's authority over public health preparedness and response, including grants and contracting, as provided in the Public Health Service Act.

"We were certainly encouraged and thankful for what congressman Tauzin did. He certainly responded to our concerns," Shoemaker said.

In the Senate, the counterpart of HR 5005 is S. 2452, a bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn. Shoemaker said that bill's implications for the HHS role in biodefense programs are not yet clear. "From what we've seen unofficially, the language in the Lieberman mark [bill] is different from the administration proposal but of concern because it's not clear what it does," she said.

She said Senate committees are expected to file proposed amendments to the Lieberman bill tomorrow and that the bill is expected to go to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Jul 24.

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