U.S. senators proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make hospitals readier for bioterrorism and questioned HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's past assurances that the nation could "handle" any such attack without such upgrades.
Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said last week that they want to increase spending to prepare for biological and chemical attacks by $1.4 billion over budgeted amounts, with most of that increase this year. Of that, $295 million would be devoted to "improving hospital response capabilities."
Speaking to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Thompson said he had asked President Bush to approve a proposal for an additional $800 million for bioterrorism readiness this year.
Several Democrats on the subcommittee took Thompson to task for telling the media several times in the past week that the country could "handle any contingency right now."
"Would you still love me if I say that I don't believe that?" said Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Answering the criticism, Thompson said, "We are prepared to respond, but there is more we can do-and must do-to strengthen our response." For example, hospital and laboratory capacity in the face of sudden, large-scale demand is insufficient, he said.
Thompson said he has proposed upgrading communications systems among health departments, increasing education for medical professionals to identify and treat biological attacks, placing a federal epidemiologist in every state and increasing healthcare capacity.
Stephen Cantrill, M.D., associate director of emergency medicine at 303-bed Denver Health Medical Center, told the subcommittee that the healthcare system in general isn't ready to respond to weapons of mass destruction. "In most domestic preparedness, hospitals and other healthcare institutions have been the forgotten components," Cantrill said.
Among other problems, the lack of a provision for suspending federal regulations that require emergency departments to screen all patients could complicate hospitals' response to a large-scale attack, he said.
Separately last week, America's Blood Centers, Washington, said it is creating a National Strategic Donor Reserve-a list of people willing to be "on call" to donate blood-after the largest-ever turnout of donors in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The group represents independent blood centers collecting half of the nation's supply.
Officials said the immediate medical needs of the victims of the attacks have been met, so blood centers are managing supplies by encouraging donors to schedule appointments. Hundreds of previously scheduled blood drives also are being rescheduled to December and January, traditionally low supply periods.
-With Cinda Becker