Report says problems hobble US biosurveillance system

Aug 16, 2007 (CIDRAP News) – Three years ago President Bush directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to consolidate biosurveillance data to improve the nation's ability to detect bioterrorism and other infectious disease threats, but federal auditors warned this week that leadership problems have seriously hampered the program.

Problems surrounding the implementation of the $14.3 million program, called the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System (NBIS), were detailed in a 38-page report by the DHS Inspector General's office that was posted on the agency's Web site 3 days ago.

The program is a massive information technology project that will combine biosurveillance information from 14 federal agencies as well as several industry and other outside sources, according to the report. The NBIS is designed to sift through a large amount of data to enable analysts to quickly recognize biological attacks on a range of targets and provide early warning of possible pandemics.

"NBIS, a key element of DHS' bioprotection program, is falling short of its objectives," the report states.

Though the program began with a clear mandate and strong support, implementation efforts have suffered from numerous shifts within DHS departments, the report says. The system initially flourished under the agency's science and technology department, but lost momentum less than a year later when DHS transferred program responsibilities to its information analysis and infrastructure department. Delays in hiring and lack of office space and staffing stalled progress on the system.

In a subsequent shift, the NBIS was placed under the department of the chief medical officer, where the focus on situational awareness was reduced and the program became more medical-based and less willing to share information, the report says. Under the new arrangement, the NBIS benefited from more senior-level support, which helped beef up staffing and bring in additional contractor expertise.

But as a result of all the management changes, the NBIS has not developed adequate planning documents, and the development of interagency partnerships—crucial for incorporating data into the system—has languished, the report asserts. "For example, without clear program milestones, NBIS managers have been unable to track accomplishments of program activities or monitor progress toward meeting long-term goals," it states.

NBIS has not yet acquired the federal data it needs to test and further develop the system, the Inspector General's Office found.

Another key problem has been a lack of guidance for NBIS contractors, the report says. For example, when the contractors were developing the system, DHS made it difficult for them to seek user feedback from the analysts who will be working with the system.

The report says the date set for the NBIS to begin initial operations was pushed back to June-July 2007, which could delay the contractor's scheduled March 2008 delivery of the system and add $2.8 million to the project's price tag. DHS projects NBIS will be fully operational by September 2008.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said problems with the NBIS are frustrating, Newsday reported 2 days ago.

"All of this was supposed to be fast-tracked. Yet we find ourselves 6 years after 9/11, wrestling with basic challenges in terms of information-sharing and interagency coordination," he told Newsday.

In an accompanying letter responding to the inspector general's report, Jeffrey Runge, MD, DHS's chief medical officer, agreed with most of the findings, but made several clarifications. He wrote that his department has already made progress toward hiring more staff and has hired a contractor to establish a master schedule to monitor workflow. Runge also said his department has secured the participation of more NBIS partners.

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