For Immediate Release: September 10, 2008
On the Seventh Anniversary of the 9/11 Attacks, Trust for America's Health Urges Real Homeland Security Reform
Washington, D.C. - Tomorrow will mark the seventh anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and as America takes stock, Trust for America's Health (TFAH) calls for needed reform to close the gaps in our nation's emergency preparedness system. TFAH publishes an annual report "Ready or Not? Protecting the Public's Health from Diseases, Disasters and Bioterrorism," which assesses how prepared states and the federal government are to respond to health emergencies.
"As we remember all our country lost in the attacks seven years ago, we should honor the victims and their families by renewing our commitment to America's security," said Jeffrey Levi, Executive Director of TFAH. "The United States still faces an unstable world with serious gaps in our homeland security network. However, with more funding and a renewed focus, there are commonsense steps we can take to better prepare the nation for the range of potential threats we face."
Some strides have been made toward greater public health security. Since the tragedy of September 11th and the subsequent anthrax attack, gains have been made in areas such as laboratory capacity, state preparedness exercises, and state medicine stockpiles. However, other aspects of our defenses remain compromised or underfunded. In the face of a national emergency, victims would be sent to hospitals with limited surge capacity and almost no safety net in place for those without health insurance. "Ready or Not?" offers a more detailed series of recommendations to help improve preparedness, which can be found at: http://healthyamericans.org/.
Some key recommendations include:
Restore Preparedness Funding: For Fiscal Year 2009, the White House once again proposes to cut funding for state and local public health emergency preparedness, by almost $137 million, from $698 million. Funding for hospital preparedness grants would also be cut by $57 million, from $414 million. At a minimum, state and local public health emergency preparedness capabilities should be restored to the Fiscal Year 2005 level of $919 million, and hospital preparedness programs to the Fiscal Year 2004 level of $515 million.
Provide Temporary Health Benefits for the Uninsured During Emergencies: Congress should pass the Public Health Emergency Response Act (PHERA), which would guarantee emergency treatment for victims affected by a major public health disaster, regardless of their health insurance status or ability to pay. PHERA would ensure people with ongoing serious health problems receive the "continuity of care" they need to protect their health and safety. The Act would put into place a framework to ensure hospitals are reimbursed for uncompensated care.
Clearly Designate Who is in Charge: There must be an official in charge of public health preparedness to specify how various departments, state and local officials, and first responders are to collaborate in the event of a public health disaster.
Strengthen Surge Capacity in Hospitals: Surge capacity remains the largest threat to the nation's ability to respond to a major catastrophe. Recommendations for strengthening surge capacity include 1) regional coordination of healthcare facilities, including alternative care sites with public health and emergency management; 2) establish and support alternative care sites; 3) enhance communication systems; 4) designate a disaster coordinator in each hospital; and 5) build a strong surge workforce by recruiting in advance in order to ensure licensing and accreditation issues are resolved before an emergency emerges.
Establish Clear Preparedness Standards for All States: Preparedness varies from state-to-state and community-to-community. HHS has yet to establish clear benchmarks and objective standards for preparedness in states. The objectives should focus on outcome results from real-life drills and exercises. Current benchmarks are often process-oriented and are not clear predictors of how well a state will respond to an emergency.
Ensure Liability Protection for Volunteers: Volunteers and private entities have expressed reluctance to participate in response and recovery efforts for fear that their actions may make them liable. The federal government should issue a clear ruling on what liability protections are offered to volunteers under the Stafford Act; state legislatures should adopt the Uniform Emergency Volunteer Health Practitioners Act, and they should also consider extending the Good Samaritan liability protections to those non-health care volunteers that provide emergency assistance.
Modernize Technology and Equipment: Upgrade surveillance systems so that they meet national standards and are interoperable between jurisdictions and agencies to ensure rapid information sharing. Surveillance systems should be able to detect an infectious disease outbreak and plans should ensure adequate laboratory surveillance of infectious diseases.
Ensure the Strategic National Stockpile has Treatments for Chronic and Infectious Threats: Ensure that medications are available to treat chronic conditions, like diabetes, as well as antiviral drugs to treat possible emerging infectious diseases.
Modernize Risk Communications: Hospitals must develop communication systems that allow health care facilities and public health departments to talk to each other and collectively manage a response.