The American Hospital Association wants the federal government to give hospitals $11.3 billion to help them prepare for more bioterrorism attacks. To make its case, what the AHA needs most right now is something that no one wants: another bioterrorism attack. Until then, it will be hard to justify the expense, especially with no guarantee that hospitals will spend the money as intended.
As of this writing, the wave of anthrax-laced letters that so far has killed four people appears to be the work of a lone domestic terrorist, according to law enforcement officials' latest theory. If that turns out to be the case, the immediate crisis may be limited. That terrorist may not strike again, or if he or she does, it might be on the same scale as the other anthrax attacks. The hospital industry in its current state handled the anthrax crisis with its usual excellence, as it did the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
In its white paper attempting to justify the $11.3 billion expenditure, the AHA acknowledged its abilities, saying, "The recent anthrax scare has shown that hospitals can adequately respond to an attack yielding a small numbers (sic) of patients." But, the AHA continued, "questions remain about hospital readiness to deal with larger scale attacks."
Scare tactics, plain and simple. The AHA expects the federal government to hand over $11.3 billion to hospitals just in case something awful happens again. That's why, according to the white paper, more than 2,000 suburban and rural hospitals need a quarter of a million dollars each to build dedicated decontamination facilities. Why not a more reasoned approach, such as the development of regional bioterrorism systems anchored by tertiary hospitals such as Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (See cover story, p. 4). Absent that, the government should not give hospitals the money without strings attached. It should ensure the funds are spent appropriately by monitoring hospitals' activities through a reporting system or on-site inspections.
News editor named. I'm pleased to announce the promotion of reporter Barbara Kirchheimer to the position of news editor. Barb joined our staff in 1999 and has broken many of our biggest stories, including Triad Hospitals' acquisition of Quorum Health Group, plans by Vanguard Health Systems to go public and Community Health Systems' attempt to become the first for-profit hospital operator in New Jersey. Her news judgment, energy and journalistic integrity make Barb the right choice for this important position.