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Swine Flu Outbreak Highlights HHS Vacancies

April 27, 2009
by Julie Rovner
National Public Radio

In the midst of what international health officials fear could be the start of a flu pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is still without most of its top political leaders.

Much of the credit goes to Leavitt and the Bush administration for its multibillion-dollar pandemic planning effort started in 2005, which included pandemic summit meetings in each of the 50 states. But Jeff Levi of Trust for America's Health, a public health advocacy organization, says the Obama administration also deserves high marks for selecting the right career people to put in charge on an acting basis.

For example, he says, it's more than luck that put Richard Besser temporarily at the helm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besser had previously headed the agency's emergency preparedness programs.

"I think the administration was very clear when they came in that one of the things they need to be most concerned about was that if there was an emergency of this kind, would the right people be in charge - and that's one of the reasons that Dr. Besser was chosen," Levi said.

Toner said HHS officials seem to be coordinating well with officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which also has authority in public emergencies like disease outbreaks. He said Sunday's White House news conference featuring Besser and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was an excellent example of interagency cooperation.

"They explained very complicated issues in a very understandable way; they were calm; they were reassuring, but not overly so; they stressed the serious nature of the outbreak, but without scaring people. They were pitch-perfect; they got it just right," he said.

Soon, however, HHS will need its political appointees in place for tasks such as asking Congress for more money. "We're still $870 million short with the original estimate for what would be needed to build our research and development capacity for pandemic flu," said Levi. "We have not given money to state and local health departments since fiscal year 2006 to support their pandemic preparedness. We're going to need to replenish the stockpile for anti-flu drugs. We need to build our supply of masks and respirators."

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