The nation's biological surveillance system is "falling short" of its goals some three years after President Bush ordered the Department of Homeland Security to consolidate biological threats uncovered by agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention into a central early-warning system, a new report found.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) failed to provide "consistent leadership and staff support to ensure successful execution" of the program, known as the National Biosurveillance Integration System, according to the report by Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.
Mr. Skinner found that the system has "struggled since its inception" to hire enough staff to effectively manage the program.
The 34-page report, obtained by Cox Newspapers in advance of its release next week, is already creating a stir on Capitol Hill.
Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, informed Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a letter that the panel is investigating the management of the program "to assess the adequacy of DHS's current biosurveillance efforts." The letter was co-authored by Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, chairman of the committee's investigations panel.
William R. Knocke, press secretary for the Homeland Security Department, said the department was already addressing several of the items raised by the inspector general at the time of his investigation.
For example, it is in the process of hiring nine full-time employees for the biosurveillance program and reached agreements with six federal agencies to bring aboard more analysts and technical-support personnel, who will start arriving this fall, Mr. Knocke said.
"Most importantly, the program now has critical leadership and support from senior officials," he said.
"We are also making sure that this program has direction with clearly defined goals and expectations for its 24/7 watch capability," Mr. Knocke said. "There is more distance to go, but I ask you to come back a year from now and you will find a substantially different program."
White House officials did not respond to a request for an interview about the program.
Mr. Bush promoted the biosurveillance system, promising that it would "detect, quantify and respond to outbreaks of disease in humans and animals, and deliver information quickly" to local, state, national and international public health officials.
Despite Mr. Bush's support, the program was bounced to four different offices within the DHS over the last three years before finally finding a home in the Office of Health Affairs.
The program didn't even have a full-time program manager from the department until May 2006, and the current director, Kimothy Smith, is not permanent. There still are not enough staff "to analyze and process biological information," according to the inspector general's report.
The staff positions that the program did acquire have been plagued by high turnover rates, resulting in a loss of institutional knowledge and a lack of continuity in the program's direction, the report said.
"Our committee would like to know how our country can be kept safe from bioterrorism if the National Biosurveillance Integration System does not have a permanent director or permanent staff in place to do the job of coordinating our government's response to biologic threats," Mr. Stupak said.
The inspector general also found that the program's manager did not provide an outside contractor with "adequate guidance, requirements input or data sources to deliver a fully functional system." This could result in higher costs and program delays.
Mr. Dingell's letter expressed exasperation with Mr. Smith, the acting director of the biosurveillance program, for refusing to answer questions about a multi-million dollar contract with Science Applications International Corporation to create an information-sharing network for agencies to access.
"Sounds like a bigger part of a bigger picture of bureaucratic failure," said Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "There are some concrete things that need to be fixed and they are not getting done."
Dr. Tara O'Toole, chief executive officer of the Center for Biosecurity of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the public health community has long been concerned about the biosurveillance program.
"The problem is there is no strategy," said Dr. O'Toole, comparing the program to building without a blueprint or plan.
"They wanted to build a national hurricane watch for public health emergencies," she said. "But just as we saw with Hurricane Katrina, just watching the hurricane coming is not enough."
If the first responders don't know how to handle a public health crisis like an anthrax outbreak or a small pox attack, she said, then an alert system would not have much impact in terms of saving lives.
The surveillance system is not set up to help managers do something in response, Dr. O'Toole said. Part of the problem with the biosurveillance program is no one is really sure what it is supposed to do, she said.
That is exactly why the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is investigating the program.
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