- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The District lags behind other cities and states in spending millions of dollars in funds awarded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shore up the city’s response to bioterrorism, a recent federal audit has found.

The CDC has given $12.7 million to the District of Columbia Department of Health for bioterrorism preparedness since 1999, yet more than $8 million of the allotment remains unspent, federal officials said.

By comparison, Virginia spent all but $4.2 million of its $24 million allotment, and Maryland spent its entire $18.6 million award.

A CDC spokesman yesterday said the District would not lose the federal funds for failing to spend the money.

Paula A. Steib, spokeswoman for the D.C.-based Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said that the District isn’t the only jurisdiction having problems spending its bioterrorism money.

“States, because of budget constraints, have had hiring freezes and other kinds of cuts and that may have made a difference in how fast they could spend bioterrorism dollars,” she said.

The report released Friday by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that among 13 states and four cities reviewed nationwide, only D.C. and Massachusetts have failed to spend at least half of their federal bioterrorism money.

The CDC has general guidelines about how cities and states can spend the money, including rules that call for funds to train public-health officials, hire epidemiologists and expand laboratories to detect “bioterror agents” such as anthrax, smallpox and the plague.

D.C. health officials yesterday blamed the slow pace of spending on management turnover within the city’s health department and a nationwide shortage of qualified chemists, microbiologists and epidemiologists.

“There have been a lot of staff changeovers,” said Dr. Thomas Calhoun, interim senior deputy director for Emergency Health and Medical Services in the city’s health department.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams recently named Dr. Gregg Pane as the city’s new health department director, which is the city’s third top health administrator since 2001.

Dr. Calhoun said the city also has had a hard time hiring chemists, microbiologists, epidemiologists and other health specialists to staff the bioterrorism initiative.

“We needed to get out and hire the specialized people … who just aren’t out there right now,” Dr. Calhoun said. “That’s one of the major reasons we didn’t spend those funds.”

Sherry Adams, assistant senior deputy director for Emergency Health and Medical Services, said the city is still trying to fill between 10 and 15 of the specialized health-professional positions.

The federal report also criticized the city’s monitoring of CDC grant money.

“Because of high management turnover in the District, we were unable to determine whether its staff was aware of accounting and reporting requirements,” the report stated.

D.C. officials said they’re aware of the CDC’s accounting requirements and recently have started meeting with federal officials to discuss plans to spend the remaining $8 million.

So far, Dr. Calhoun said the city’s health department has spent bioterrorism funds to expand its lab and upgrade prescription-drug stockpiles. He said city health officials also have held training sessions with private physicians and clinics to discuss how to respond to an attack involving a weapon of mass destruction.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jeffrey Elting, medical director for bioterrorism response for the D.C. Hospital Association, said yesterday that city hospitals have received about $8 million for terrorism response initiatives from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Some of that money has been used by city hospitals to train staff, install decontamination units, buy protection equipment and stockpile medication, he said.

Hospitals could surely use more of the funds because “most of them are teetering on break-even at the end of the year, at best,” Dr. Elting said.

“We’ve made major strides, but we have a long way to go,” Dr. Elting said.

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